VOL. 9 | NO. 19 | Saturday, May 7, 2016
The Memphis News Editorial
Editorial: Telling the Whole Truth Against All Odds
Have you ever heard of Samuel Allen McElwee, Isham Franklin Norris or Monroe W. Gooden?
All were Tennessee legislators who represented Memphis and the surrounding area during the era of Reconstruction following the Civil War. Reconstruction was the result of the three-day orgy of violence led by the Memphis Police Department 150 years ago this month.
Until the Tennessee State Library and Archives of the Secretary of State’s office recently posted biographies and pictures of them on the state’s website, they were about as well-known as the Memphis massacre.
These three legislators were former slaves, born into an institution that made men like Nathan Bedford Forrest wealthy.
A decade after they were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, they began taking their places in the Tennessee General Assembly as elected representatives.
They served as other black men and women continued to be lynched openly, with newspapers of the day announcing the time and place in advance and then details after the event.
There is no greater symbol of how imperfect our concept of freedom is as a way of life than the generational captivity of these men by law and then by violence. And there is no greater symbol of how aspirational that same evolving concept is than their rise to power – however briefly, against all odds.
Gooden was born a slave in Fayette County. He became a farmer, owning the plantation where he had been a slave. And he represented Fayette County in the Legislature.
He and the others disappeared, starting with their names, just like the victims of the Memphis massacre.
A quarter of a century later, the smear job continued in the 1915 movie “Birth of a Nation,” which greatly helped spread the lore of “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags.”
The Civil War is over and the Confederacy lost. You wouldn’t know that from all of the monuments to the leaders of that cause who are lauded for bravery with engraved words that aren’t so specific on the cause. Here things get poetic and fuzzy, even though they are written in stone.
It’s time to get right who won the Civil War and why, and then how those who lost that war regained power and continued to fight from the wrong side of history against those who were armed only with a desire to be free against all odds.
No one should be erased from our history, and neither should the complete story of what happened. When that story is known, hopefully more of us will understand that monuments aren’t history. They are tributes. And who we pay tribute to says a lot about what we value in the present.
It is past time to tell the truth and hope it becomes a more rapid habit in the here and now.