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Confederate monuments now being toppled were once lauded by newspapers like The Commercial Appeal

My story was part of the main package of stories that won a Grand Prize in the 2021 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award contest...

This story is part of The Confederate Reckoning, a collaborative project of USA TODAY Network newsrooms across the South to critically examine the legacy of the Confederacy and its influence on systemic racism today.

When Nathan Bedford Forrest’s statue was erected in the middle of Memphis in 1905, the newspaper then known as The Commercial Appeal didn’t just publish a paean to Memphis’ most famous dead Confederate.

It squeezed in mentions of some of the lesser-known Lost Cause casualties.

On May 14, 1905, The CA dedicated its art section to the equestrian statue which, for another 112 years, would sit atop the remains of the general and his wife, Mary Ann, both of whom had previously been buried in Elmwood Cemetery.

Unsurprisingly, The CA praised the Confederate general and slave trader as, “the Wizard of the Saddle.” Writer Annah Robinson Watson, among others, called him “one of the immortals of his people.”

But in that same section, The CA also lauded as a "Boy Hero of Tennessee" Samuel Davis, a Rutherford County, Tennessee, Confederate scout who was captured and hanged by Union forces when he was 21 years old. It also featured pictures of Forrest’s staff.

Not mentioned were Forrest's atrocities in 1864 at Fort Pillow, where he led his troops to massacre nearly than 300 Union soldiers — most of whom were black — as they retreated. Also not mentioned was his role as an early leader in the Ku Klux Klan.

Amid intensified discussions this year around the Black Lives Matter movement and addressing systemic racism, The Commercial Appeal and its sister newspapers in the South are examining their past coverage decisions.

As monuments to the Confederacy are being toppled and removed as the nation comes to grips with the odious institution it fought to uphold — slavery— it seems that much of the support for them in Southern newspapers didn’t solely emerge out of a need to reinstate symbols of white supremacy, but to also memorialize lesser-known Confederate dead.

The May 14, 1905, front page of The CA somewhat reflects that.

Debra van Tuyll, an Augusta University communication professor, reviewed Southern newspapers from 1865 to the early 20th century for her research paper, “Hatred or History: Newspapers and the Reconstruction Construction of Confederate Monuments.”

What she found was that editors often reminded readers that while the federal government authorized the president to establish national cemeteries to relocate and to bury the remains of Union soldiers after the Civil War, it didn’t do the same for Confederate dead.

In 1898, the federal government was granted the authority to care for Confederate graves — and that gave Southerners a chance to honor their dead.

“These [Confederate] monuments, they started as ideas for cemeteries,” Van Tuyll said. “They were maintained by ladies’ memorial societies, and these were women whose husbands and sons and fathers had died in the war…they were bringing home their skeletons, and they wanted to be able to decorate their graves.”

So, it made sense that Forrest was first interred at Elmwood Cemetery, where monuments and tombstones exist to honor the dead of many wars, soldiers and generals alike.

But then came 1905.

That was the year that Niagara Movement, led by W.E.B. DuBois and Memphis firebrand journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett, was formed to battle Jim Crow and to fight for equal rights for African-Americans. It would later become the NAACP.

That was also the year that Mary Latham, wife of Judge Thomas Latham and one of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, moved those ladies from the realm of decorating Confederate graves to memorializing them in places where their ghosts could haunt the African-Americans who they once fought to keep enslaved.

Latham was instrumental in getting the Forrest statue installed in the park.

"This is happening not just in Memphis, but everywhere as an effort on the part of the United Daughters of the Confederacy as part of their educational program and a part of their commemoration of the Confederate dead," said University of Memphis history professor Beverly G. Bond, whose research focuses on nineteenth-century African-American history, African-American women's history and Memphis history.

"It's all a part of this process to re-frame the meaning of the Confederacy."

And The CA lauded Latham for it.

But that’s not surprising – given the fact that 13 years before that, The Commercial, as the newspaper was then known, and its afternoon competitor, the Press-Scimitar, attacked 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 Forrest and the Confederacy admirers 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.”

"You have to look at the context, and the context is growing segregation in Tennessee," Bond said. "You had this growing movement since the 1880's towards segregation and disenfranchisement...1905 is the year you get streetcar segregation laws in Tennessee that apply to larger cities like Memphis..."

It would be nearly another 100 years before support for Confederate monuments in Memphis would substantively change.

As in previous years the CA would continue to oppose lynching. But its coverage of them, especially in the case of the 1917 lynching of Eli Persons in Memphis, in which he was burned and decapitated, did more to sensationalize than horrify.

Also, Bond said The CA's opposition to lynching was more about image than empathy.

"They're against lynching, but this was also a period in which Southern states were going through this boosterism process, in which they were trying to promote this new South and encourage industrial development," she said.

"You want to make your state look good and lynchings, very simply, don't look good to the outside."

The CA also continued its degradation of African-Americans through the Hambone cartoons.

That cartoon, which featured a Black man with exaggerated features dispensing folksy thoughts in broken English, ran from 1916 to 1968. The newspaper pulled the cartoon after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

But before that, The CA joined other Southern newspapers in fighting federal attempts at desegregation after the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

That resistance resonated into 1964; the year that the Civil Rights Act was passed and the year that the bronze statue of Jefferson Davis made a stop at the Peabody Hotel before being placed on a pedestal at what was then called Confederate Park, but was later renamed Memphis Park.

Wrote The CA in its Mar, 17, 1964 edition: "Jefferson Davis will be a special guest at the Peabody Mar. 26 -Apr. 9. His bigger-than-life statue will be, anyway." The statue, which was 8 feet tall, was displayed at the Peabody by the United Daughters of the Confederacy as a way to raise $7,000 for the granite pedestal. The leader of the Jefferson Davis Statue Fund Drive, Mrs. Harry Allen, said the effort was about memorializing a great Confederate.

But to the Rev. Dr. L. LaSimba Gray Jr., a longtime Memphis civil rights activist who was a student at Lane College at the time, that statue was more about intimidating living Black people than honoring dead white men.

"The Vietnam War was at its zenith," Gray said."There was the anxiety of young African-American men not being able to go to college, not being to get a job or to raise a family, who were being shipped to Vietnam wholesale...

"And you had a push back in Memphis to the [1964] Civil Rights Act, so we didn't perceive the statue of Davis as a commemoration or a celebration of relatives. We saw it as intimidation to Black people."

Gray also said he wasn't surprised that The CA didn't get the connection between the timing of the Davis statue being erected and the civil rights act being passed.

"Keep in mind The Commercial Appeal was still running Hambone then. So that's how much respect they didn't have for us," he said.

In 1988, the NAACP called for Forrest’s statue to be removed. As his history began to be exposed, and protests grew, The CA ultimately opined that the statues should go - and that the remains of Forrest and his wife be reburied at Elmwood.

In late 2017, the statues of Forrest and Davis were removed after the city of Memphis sold the parks to non-profitMemphis Greenspace, and they took them down.

The CA supported that move, and the remains of the Forrests' are expected to be relocated.

So, for all the early celebration over the Forrest statue and the graves of his wife, Mary Ann, and himself being given a prominent place in the city, van Tuyll's research points to how he likely would have preferred staying at Elmwood Cemetery, where he reportedly originally requested to be buried.

As far as Gray is concerned, cemeteries are where the remains of Confederates should be.

"Put 'em there, or in a museum, but take 'em off public display in a park," he said.

The CA came around to supporting Gray's position, even though it took more than 100 years.

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