Charlotta Bass was managing editor and publisher of the California Eagle from 1912 to 1951. The Eagle, founded in 1879, was one of the longest-running African-American newspapers in the West.
As a crusading journalist and political activist, she was at the forefront of the civil rights struggles of her time, especially in Los Angeles, but also in California and the nation.
Born Charlotta Amanda Spears in Sumter, S.C., in 1874, Bass was the sixth of 11 children to Hiram and Kate Spears. At the turn of the century when she was 20, Bass moved to Providence, R.I., to live with her brother. Spears worked for the Providence Watchman for about 10 years. In 1910, she migrated to Los Angeles to improve her health.
Soon after arriving, Bass sold subscriptions for the Eagle, a black newspaper founded by John Neimore in 1879.
Fulfilling the deathbed request of Neimore, Bass became the Eagle’s editor and publisher in March 1912, a career lasting over 40 years until she sold the newspaper in 1951. In 1914, Bass hired and subsequently married Joseph Blackburn Bass, a Kansas newspaperman who had been one of the founders of the Topeka Plaindealer, who edited the paper until his death in 1934.
She renamed the newspaper company to the California Eagle due to increasing social and political issues. Her purpose for the California Eagle was to write about the wrongs of society. As publisher, Bass was committed to producing a quality periodical. In her weekly column “On the Sidewalk,” begun in 1927, she drew attention to unjust social and political conditions for all Los Angeles minority communities and campaigned vigorously for reform.
Bass was also a political candidate at the local, state and national level, including running for vice president of the United States on the Progressive Party ticket in 1952. She used the newspaper, along with direct-action campaigns and the political process, to challenge inequality for Blacks, workers, women and other minorities in Los Angeles.
Bass fought important battles against job and housing discrimination, police brutality and media stereotyping, and for immigrant and women’s rights and civil liberties.
She paid a price for her outspokenness. Her life was threatened on numerous occasions. The FBI placed her under surveillance on the charge that her newspaper was seditious and continued to monitor her until her death. Accused of being a Communist, in 1950, she was called before the California Legislature’s Joint Fact-Finding Committee on un-American Activities.
The accusations began to take a toll on her effectiveness in the community and her ability to sell her newspaper. In 1951, she sold the paper and continued her work in the political realm.
Bass ran for several elected offices, including the Los Angeles City Council, Congress, and the U.S. Vice Presidency. She was also a founding member of California’s Independent Progressive Party, part of the national Progressive Party, a third-party movement. Moreover, she founded, led and participated in numerous civil rights organizations, where she met and befriended prominent activists such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois.
Considering the sum of her career as she was completing her autobiography, “Forty Years” (1960), Bass wrote: “It has been a good life that I have had, though a very hard one, but I know the future will be even better. And as I think back I know that is the only kind of life: In serving one’s fellow man one serves himself best ...”