Newspapers have been a powerful force in channeling the priorities
and decisions of elected officials and the public for a long time. To the extent
that the Lost Cause narrative has had a role in racist activity since the Civil
War, it must be acknowledged that the narrative never would have survived without
a pervasive and persistent “narrator” in the form of the newspapers. But we don’t
hear about that. We hear about the malignant politicians, judges, racist activists,
Confederate veterans, and Confederacy nostalgia enthusiasts, and...the monuments,
but not the newspapers.
With the Lost Cause narrative’s originator, Edward Pollard,
rescinding many of the more volatile views that he expressed in his first book on
the Lost Cause by 1868, it is doubtful there would have been a Lost Cause narrative
without the newspapers propagating views and promoting policies that some today
believe reflect the tone and sentiment of the Lost Cause narrative.
Vitally important today, though, is that our news media not
use that same powerful voice to create a narrative that is false and harmful like
their editorial staffs did in the late 1800s. The conduit that the news media was
able to establish between those with power and the public was extraordinarily effective
in the late 1800s, and it is even more so today.
Take for instance the News Journal’s July 18, 2020 editorial
titled “City Council right to reject myth of ‘Lost Cause’ monument.” The newspaper had repeatedly
championed the notion that the Lost Cause narrative was thoroughly enmeshed in the
monument’s origin and history, managing to put down opposing views as “myths” in
the days and weeks leading to a pivotal City Council meeting. Then, after the City
Council voted to relocate the Confederate statue, the July 18 editorial came along
and congratulated the City Council for essentially buying into the News Journal’s
theory and for opposing the “myths.” That’s part of the power of the news media.
It decides what is myth and what is fact, often on the turn of a phrase and the
flimsiest of evidence.
One example of this was the News Journal’s effort to
make the case that the monument was a racist symbol when it cited a speech delivered
during the 1912 Memorial Day observance at the Confederate monument. In its
June 29, 2020 article, the News Journal told of its April
27, 1912 issue in which it described Kirke Monroe’s speech as “one of the best
ever delivered here on such an occasion” in assessing the speech in which Monroe
said, “This is a struggle for white supremacy.” That citation was meant to
be practically the final word on what the News Journal described as the monument’s
racist origins and past.
However, while the News Journal leveraged that speech
as being indicative of the time and of the gatherings at the monument, it ignored
the speeches that were given the year before and the year after during which nothing
at all was said of white supremacy.
During the 1911 Memorial Day observance, Reverend Eugene R.
Pendleton spoke dramatically about the cost of the Civil War to both sides and concluded
his speech with words of unity, “No enduring union can be built upon hate or distrust,
and when we commemorate the death of our own heroes of the south, we must not begrudge
a tear for the boys of the north, and as we wind a laurel wreath around the tombs
of Lee and Jackson, we must not be unwilling to place fragrant roses and southern
Jasmine over the graves of Grant and Lincoln. Let the past go, and face the living
present and budding future. Let our banner be peace, and a common patriotism.”
The speech at the monument in observance of Memorial Day in 1913 was delivered by Oliver J. Semmes who spoke affectionately of the dead of both sides in the war.
He said, “Honor to Confederate soldiers, whose ashes lie in our cemeteries; unlimited,
spontaneous honors be theirs, and may the spirit of Robert E. Lee and U. S. Grant
and those of the immortal hosts they led, forever enjoy a common happiness beneath
the shades of the same trees across the river.”
How is it that the newspaper was able to search for and locate
the highly inflammatory language from one of its articles from 1912 to support their
position, but not from the articles in 1911 and 1913 and other years that provided
an entirely different perspective unless its position was biased from the
There is no doubt that there was a narrative in the post-war
South that romanticized the lost cause and that there were many in public office
and in the news media who were almost solely responsible for propagating that narrative.
There is also no doubt that there were politicians who worked aggressively to suppress
and otherwise infringe on the rights of African Americans as soon as the South was
free of Federal Reconstruction management, and there were news media outlets that
gave them cover because they were essentially “Party” newspapers.
There is no denying as well that African Americans were treated
contemptuously and sometimes brutally during the post-Reconstruction era (and
before) in many parts of the country, including Pensacola. It is also certain that
long after the monument was erected, it became a rallying point for racists as they
gathered around the monument as though it represented their cause although
their cause had nothing to do with reverently honoring war dead.
What is in doubt for many is whether the monument, erected in
the swirl of so much racist activity, was separate from that activity in its
original purpose and was truly constructed to honor those who had valiantly given
their lives in a war of secession that they—the common soldiers—the sons of Florida—did
not start. There has been a sense among many, including those who addressed the
crowd on June 17, 1891 at the monument’s unveiling ceremony, that the “cause” for
which the common soldier fought was the principle of simply doing one’s duty.
Again, why did they go to war?
Because their states called them to war. What was the “cause” that they died for?
The common soldier’s cause was duty. The common Confederate soldier didn’t choose
the battles and wasn’t in the room where the politics, policies, and strategies
were birthed. And again, he was an instrument of his state government; honoring
him when he is dead is a stark reminder of the cost of war and politics.
If anything, particularly in the case of the American Civil War, the story of
the cost of that war and the politics behind it should be more fully told, not
shunted away in half-truths.
In my view, the inclusion of engravings of tribute to Confederate
leaders on the monument detracted from the monument’s central theme of honoring
the Confederate war dead because those engravings mean that the monument actually
does much more than honor the war dead. The tributes on three of the monument’s
four panels have an entirely different nature than the fourth which honors the dead
because they do honor the leaders of the movement that was defeated and discredited
in the outcome of the war, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th, 14th, and
I also believe that racists who used the monument as a backdrop
for their demonstrations in the early 1900s to the 1970s did more harm to the legitimate
symbolism and historical value of the monument than any present-day political movement
could ever do. I also believe current feelings about the monument’s meaning to today’s
African American community must be seriously and fairly considered, but it’s difficult
to ignore the role the news media has had in stirring up animosities and division
through their distorted reporting and commentary.
Remove the monument, or don’t. But let’s do what we do in full
appreciation of history and a recognition of the purposes for which the monument
was constructed. The fact is that many today are fired up about a history they don’t
even know, and the news media hasn’t helped.
Consider what the four speakers at the unveiling ceremony for
the monument on June 17, 1891 had to say about what it stood for and see if you
believe it was part of that Lost Cause narrative or if it really was primarily a
monument honoring the Confederate war dead.
Judge also the effect on the so-called “Lost Cause” narrative
of an unchecked and coordinated political and media campaign to advance that narrative.
Ask yourself if the “Lost Cause” narrative could have endured without their advocacy.
Would the controversy surrounding the monument today have endured without it and
without modern revisions of history?
Finally, there’s a scene in the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty
Valance” in which the reporter, Mr. Scott, had been interviewing Ransom Stoddard,
the man whom everyone mistakenly believed shot the outlaw Liberty Valance. When
Mr. Scott realizes that Stoddard didn’t shoot Valance and that his entire reputation
and fame were based on a myth, Scott thought for a moment then he threw his interview
notes that told the true story into the fire. When Stoddard asked him, “You’re not
going to use the story, Mr. Scott?” Scott answered, “This is the West, sir. When
the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
It seems that that’s where we are. The legend has become “fact” and that’s what is being printed.