April 15, 2016
Admit it. There’s generally not a lot of love for journalists among the denizens of state capitols, whether in Lansing or elsewhere, First Amendment or not.
Thus I was surprised to see a statue of journalist Edward Ward Carmack on the south side of the Tennessee Capitol in Nashville. After all, Capitol grounds are generally reserved to commemorate politicians — Tennessee’s boasts the tomb of President James Polk and statutes of the state’s other two ex-presidents, Andrew Johnson and Andrew Jackson.
But a journalist? Sure, Carmack did spend one term in the legislature, two terms in the U.S. House and one term in the U.S. Senate, but he was, ultimately a journalist — editor-in-chief of the Nashville American and later editor of the Memphis Commercial — and it killed him.
So why does Carmack rate a prominently placed statue?
The official Capitol guidebook merely says Carmack was gunned down “over a dispute about prohibition,” but neither the guidebook nor the inscription on the statute reveal the details — including where he stood on that hot-button issue. Wet? Or dry?
Fortunately the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture answers that question.
Many politicians change their professed opinions on issues, whether to win votes or because of a genuine change of heart. I don’t know Carmack’s motives, but he did shift from being a “moderate” on prohibition during “his early political career” when he favored regulation rather than criminalization of alcohol.
But when his unsuccessful Senate reelection campaign rolled around, he “portrayed himself as an enemy of liquor interests, a position which may have cost him the race. A short time later, he publicly proclaimed his support for statewide prohibition.”
An anti-alcohol journalist? Imagine that.
That dry-all-the-way stance “instantly made him a favorite among Tennessee’s temperance backers,” and he plunged into the Democratic primary race for governor in 1908 against the incumbent.
Defeated in the gubernatorial primary, “Carmack, indignant over his loss, returned to journalism and became editor of the Nashville Tennessean, a prohibitionist daily,” and used his pages to attack Duncan Brown Cooper, the owner of his former anti-prohibition paper, the Nashville American.
The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture tells what happened next:
“Outraged by such comments, Cooper sent a stern warning to Carmack to halt his attacks. Carmack, however, ignored these threats and continued to malign his former friend. The situation came to a head on November 9, 1908, when Cooper and his son Robin encountered Carmack on a downtown Nashville street. Fearing an ambush, Carmack fired on the pair, wounding the younger Cooper. Robin Cooper returned fire, killing Carmack instantly.”
“Carmack’s violent death created an uproar across Tennessee,” the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture continued, “Prohibitionists deemed the shooting an assassination and transformed Carmack into a slain martyr.”
I prefer to think of him as a martyr for freedom of the press rather than for prohibition.
The connection between violence and state Capitols isn’t limited to Tennessee, as illustrated by the 1879 fatal shooting of state Rep. Robert Alston in the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta.
Alston, a sharp critic of that state’s prison contract labor system after the Civil War, was allegedly targeted by a conspiracy engineered by the grand wizard of the Georgia KKK and two powerful Democratic politicians, including Gov. Alfred Colquitt, who was present when Alston died.
Nor is the Michigan Capitol immune from violence, as the 1977 confrontation on the House floor between Democratic Reps. Perry Bullard of Ann Arbor and Rosetta Ferguson of Detroit shows.
My late Detroit News colleague, Charlie Cain, recapped the incident in a 2009 column for Dome magazine:
“An emotional debate was being waged over a bill to decriminalize marijuana. Tempers were rising. Ferguson was arguing against passage, saying it could lead to small children finding a marijuana joint on the ground or left on a table by a negligent parent, eat it and get ‘marijuana drunk.’”
“Bill sponsor Bullard at one point called Ferguson’s argument ‘ignorant.’ Suddenly, Ferguson rushed over to Bullard and slugged him in the head. She also took a glass ashtray from a desk and popped a dumfounded Bullard upside the head.”
“It was front page stuff — two state representatives in a fight during a formal House session. It certainly embarrassed both lawmakers,” Cain wrote.
After the incident, they apologized privately to each other and publicly to their colleagues for what the Associated Press described as “brief fisticuffs.”
And neither Bullard nor Ferguson got a statue on the Capitol grounds.
, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.