Granddad, Hambone and the KKK

February 21st, 2013

Citation from the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, awarded to the Memphis Commercial Appeal:

“For its courageous attitude in the publication of cartoons and the handling of news in reference to the operations of the Ku Klux Klan.”

It’s official. The Klan hasn’t liked us for decades, and it’s time we reminded them.

As published in The Daily News, February 22, 2013, and in The Memphis News, February 23-March 1, 2013

 (photo: J.P. Alley, at his drawing board, ca. 1933. Check out the spats.)


JP Alley


An Exalted Cyclops of the KKK – must be just one hole in his hood – recently told Channel 5, also quoted in The Huffington Post, “Y’all are going to see the largest rally Memphis, Tennessee, has ever seen. It’s not going to be twenty or thirty – it’s going to be thousands of Klansmen from the whole United States.”

Or not. Whenever the Grand Cretins start blowing smoke, there’s never that much fire. Something always seems to keep the hood count down. Can’t find a clean sheet. Can’t get time off from the junkyard. The Rottweiler’s sick. Nobody to cook the meth. The truck throwed a rod. Something.

But here’s the thing. If changing the name of a park is enough to get their sheets all twisted, enough to get them promising a grand racist rally, then that’s proof the name should be changed. If the Klan is marching against you, you’re moving in the right direction. Conversely, if you’re for what the Klan’s for, you’re way out of step.

My grandfather, J.P. Alley, was the editorial cartoonist for The Commercial Appeal and part of the editorial team that won the Pulitzer Prize for the paper in 1923 fighting the Ku Klux Klan.

Moving in the right direction, then and now, against people worth fighting whose beliefs are worth nothing.

Conversely, the same man created “Hambone’s Meditations” in 1916, a cartoon caricature of a black man who delivered his down-home observations of the world around him in deep dialect. Oblivious of those it demeaned and stereotyped, it was endearing to its readers, syndicated in hundreds of papers, and quoted daily over thousands of cups of morning coffee in places that would have refused to serve that coffee to Hambone. In its heyday, “Hambone’s Meditations” appeared on the front page of The Commercial Appeal’s first or second section. My grandfather drew and wrote it until his death in 1934, and my grandmother wrote it and my uncles drew it until it was finally cancelled decades later. That year was 1968, and Martin Luther King may well have seen it in the local paper that last morning.

Way out of step, accepted even adored by Jim Crow, part of our history best left in our past, and a lesson for us today.

My contemporary understanding of how hurtful Hambone was to so many, how illustrative that cartoon was of institutionalized racism, makes me no less proud of my grandfather’s immense talent, sharp pen and even sharper wit. He was an accomplished man of his time and never intended Hambone to hurt but simply to amuse, but that time has past and the hurt was real.

Imagine if Hambone was in the paper today. Or on a horse in the Medical Center.

Hurt and hate feed the Klan, so let’s stop serving it up. When those clowns bring their hooded circus to town – no matter how many – just ignore them and they’ll starve.

I’m a Memphian, and I’m proud that the KKK doesn’t like us.


Linda Lancaster: Just got back from a conference in Memphis. I picked up a local businesss journal while there and read your article on The Waffle Shop. I liked it so much I thought I would look you up on the Internet. This article on the KKK is great. Keep writing and I'll keep reading.

Daintrie Hanrahan: Well said - he would be proud of you.

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