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 outset?
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 15th Amendments.
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.