Thursday, April 13, 2017

Edward J. Meeman (1889-1966)

Edward J. Meeman, from 1931 to 1962 the editor of the Memphis Press-Scimitar, may have been the only man or woman who had personal audiences with Eugene Debs, Herbert Hoover, and Adolf Hitler.

The audience with Hitler came in 1933, through the Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation, which arranged for Germans to visit the United States and vice versa. Meeman was chosen to accompany a group of US city officials who went to Germany to observe firsthand how municipal governments worked there. He reported that he “talked with” Hitler during the visit and “saw with my own eyes how Hitler’s opponents were being forced into silence and were being hypnotized by mass propaganda.”

The audience with Herbert Hoover came in 1930. Meeman was in Washington, pressing the government to construct a dam at Cove Creek, in northeastern Tennessee. Boarding a train for home, Meeman found none other than President Hoover on the same train. The editor bent the president’s ear and secured from the chief executive a promise to support the dam. (Hoover did not keep his promise, but the dam was eventually constructed anyway in the mid-1930s as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority.)

Meeman, who as a young man in his native Indiana was a socialist, had many audiences with Eugene Debs. One occurred in 1920, when Debs, who by then was a personal friend of Meeman’s, was imprisoned in Atlanta for opposing World War I. Meeman, because he was Debs’s friend, was asked by the Newspaper Enterprise Association to interview the socialist leader. “Outwardly, it was a cheerful meeting. [But] I was sad inside, as I saw him walk to greet me in his prison suit,” Meeman reported.

These details are found in a de facto autobiography of Meeman constructed from his personal papers by Edwin Howard, the son of a reporter who worked for Meeman when the latter was editor of the Knoxville Sentinel. Published by the Edward J. Meeman Foundation in 1976 as The Editorial We: A Posthumous Autobiography of Edward J. Meeman, Howard’s construction emphasizes three causes that occupied Meeman during his thirty-plus years in Memphis: creating Shelby Forest State Park; urging Memphians to join the Tennessee Valley Authority; and ending the municipal despotism of Boss Crump.

Meeman, who was an environmentalist long before environmentalism entered the national consciousness, lived near present-day Shelby Forest—he reports that it took him forty-five minutes to drive from his home to his office downtown—and it was through his leadership that the state park was created in the 1930s. The idea for the park was inspired by Meeman’s visit to Germany, during which he toured several of that country’s parks. “If a poor country like Germany can afford a state forest park near every city, why can’t rich America?,” he asked.

Indeed, Meeman, if he is known outside Memphis, is known as a conservationist. He is named for an archive kept by Michigan State University of the best environmental reporting in newspapers. When Meeman died at his Shelby Forest home in 1966, the First Lady, Mrs. Johnson, commended “his invaluable work over many years in conservation.” It is, she said, “a lasting legacy to all Americans.”
Meeman’s environmentalism no doubt animated his ardent support for the TVA, which would not only bring cheaper electricity to Memphis but would control erosion and flooding throughout the valley. Under his editorship, the Press-Scimitar vigorously promoted the program and asked Memphians to vote yes to purchasing bonds to acquire TVA power. On November 6, 1934, they did.

Perhaps Meeman’s greatest accomplishment—certainly his most courageous—was his long campaign to convince Memphians to assert their political freedom by voting out of power the Crump machine. Memphians had struck a devil’s bargain with Crump, Meeman believed: in exchange for good public services, they agreed to put up with a dictator. As a result, they were in danger of losing their instinct for democracy and self-determination. Crump’s hold on the city was finally broken in 1948, when, with the support of Meeman and a handful of other prominent Memphians, the non-Crump candidate Estes Kefauver won election to the US Senate.

By the end of his life, Meeman, a religious man, had joined something called the Moral Re-Armament movement, which taught that to change the world, one had to change oneself. The movement asked followers to be honest, pure, unselfish, and loving. By that time, too, Meeman had long abandoned socialism and had come to see communism as a great peril, even writing in 1949 a “freedom manifesto” as an explicit alternative to Marx and Engel’s communist manifesto. “In our Free Society,” he wrote, “various economic forms exist side by side”—self-employment, partnerships, cooperatives, corporations, public ownership. “Experience and sense of values, not dogmatic theory,” will determine which form is appropriate for the purpose at hand.

A biography of Meeman is long overdue. According to Edwin Howard, who constructed Meeman’s posthumous autobiography, the materials are there, in the Mississippi Valley Collection at the University of Memphis.

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