Southern Newspapers were Vocal Supporters of the Confederacy. It Lasted for GenerationsHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Southern history, Confederacy, journalism, Ida B. Wells, Lost Cause Mythology
The late civil rights leader, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, once exhorted journalists to be "a headlight and not a taillight."
"You have a moral obligation to pick up your pens and your pencils, use your cameras to tell the story, to make it plain, to make it real," Lewis said at a Pulitzer Prize event in 2016. But for most of American history, what newspapers in the South made plain and real was the racism that permeated so many facets of life in this country — and they did so with unabashed support for the people and systems that promoted and maintained prejudice and discrimination.
As Southern news outlets cover the latest chapter of our national reckoning with racial divides, a full accounting is not possible without acknowledging the role many of these institutions played in creating and servicing the myths that were used to justify racial oppression, in particular those tracing their roots to the Confederacy. Coverage that takes seriously issues of systemic racism today often marks a sharp departure from what Southern newspapers published in the century following the Civil War.
As part of a collaborative project on the legacy of the Confederacy and its influence on systemic racism today, USA TODAY Network newsrooms across the South have dug into our own archives to examine how our own outlets reported on those issues, as well as their stances on segregation and civil rights. Examples from six newspapers are below, and links to more reporting on each individual paper's history are at the end of this story. Our hope is that this look back can teach us to look forward — to be a headlight and not a taillight.
The Commercial Appeal - Memphis, Tennessee
In 1892, The Commercial, as The Commercial Appeal was then known, and its afternoon competitor, the Press-Scimitar, attacked the pioneering Black journalist Ida. B. Wells for her anti-lynching editorials in the Free Speech and Headlight, which she co-edited.
What it really did, though, was attack Wells for not staying in the docile place that admirers of the Confederacy preferred.
According to Paula Giddings, author of Ida: A Sword Among Lions, The Commercial Appeal wrote: “Those negroes who are attempting to make the lynching of individuals of their race a means for arousing the worse passions of their kind are playing with a dangerous sentiment.”
“The fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome calumnies is evidence as to the wonderful patience of Southern whites.”
Those excerpts were featured in an investigation by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida, on the role Southern newspapers played in racial violence.
It would be nearly another 100 years before support for Confederate monuments in Memphis would substantively change.