The Iowa State Bystander was established in Des Moines in 1894 as a four-page weekly to serve as the voice of Iowa’s African American community. Ten prominent African Americans established the Bystander Publishing Company under the motto: “Fear God, Tell the Truth, and Make Money.” The Iowa State Bystander was the fifth black newspaper established in Iowa, following short-lived publications in Corning, Des Moines, and Oskaloosa. The first issue was published on June 15, 1894, with a press run of one thousand copies. Editor Charles S. Ruff named the paper after a syndicated newspaper column called “The Bystander’s Notes” written by civil rights advocate Albion W. Tourgee for the black Chicago newspaper, the Daily Inter Ocean.
Two years later, Ruff and his brother, Associate Editor Thaddeus Ruff, handed editorial responsibilities to John Lay Thompson, a graduate of the Iowa Business College and student at the Drake University Law School. During his years as editor, Thompson worked as a lawyer and held positions in local, county, and state governments. In 1900, the paper was enlarged to an eight-page weekly. When the Bystander Publishing Company was dissolved in 1911, Thompson became the paper’s sole owner. His rising status and editorial skill were reflected in the growing circulation numbers for the Iowa State Bystander, which reached 3,400 by 1912. In January 1916, Thompson changed the paper’s name to the Bystander in an effort to appeal to a larger national audience.
In October 1919, Thompson sold the paper to devote himself exclusively to his law practice. After struggling financially for a few months, the new owners named James B. Morris managing editor of the Bystander. The newspaper’s financial woes continued, however, and in 1922 publisher Laurence Jones sold his interest to Morris, who changed its name to the Iowa Bystander. A Des Moines lawyer and Howard University graduate, Morris would serve as owner and publisher of the Iowa Bystander until 1972. Financial difficulties persisted into the 1930s, but thanks to support from Harvey Ingram of the Des Moines Register and other Des Moines businessmen, the Bystander managed to survive the economic depression.
Morris led an active public life during his editorial tenure. He was one of the founders of the Negro Bar Association, presided over the Des Moines chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and waged a tireless campaign against discrimination and segregation in Iowa and the rest of the country. The Iowa Bystander attacked the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, highlighted the contributions of black servicemen in World War II, and covered the emerging civil rights and Black Power movements in the 1950s and 1960s.
Under both Thompson and Morris, the Bystander was staunchly loyal to the Republican Party, championed civil rights for all people, and attacked segregation and violence against people of color. The paper followed the philosophical admonitions of Booker T. Washington for African Americans to work hard, lift themselves up by their own efforts, and make positive contributions to American society.