Josephus Daniels statue proves morality is never a clear-cut cause

Frank Daniels and Frank Daniels, Jr., at the unveiling of the Josephus Daniels statue in September 1985.
Frank Daniels and Frank Daniels, Jr., at the unveiling of the Josephus Daniels statue in September 1985. File Photo

The debate over removing Confederate statues has flared once again in recent days, with cities across the South either removing their monuments in the cover of night or offering plans for imminent removal. While no doubt prompted by the violence in Charlottesville over the weekend, these removals are rooted in long-standing campaigns against symbols of white supremacy across the country. Arguments for removing statues usually boil down to one simple desire: to prevent the state-sponsored admiration of white supremacy. But what happens when statues commemorate more complicated figures than Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee or Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest?

Take the example of Josephus Daniels, who was the target of a recent campaign to rename buildings at UNC-Chapel Hill that commemorated white supremacists. The campaign, which succeeded in renaming Saunders Hall in 2015, singled out Daniels for his support of the “triumph of white supremacy,” a pair of elections in 1898 and 1900 that took political power and the franchise away from African-Americans throughout North Carolina.

Activists emphasized Daniels’ role, as then-editor of the News and Observer, in stoking racial resentment through virulent editorials and cartoons warning of black domination. Such sentiments led not only to the passage of Jim Crow laws throughout North Carolina, but also the racially-charged coup d’état in Wilmington that led to the deaths of numerous African-American citizens.

But Daniels did not finish his career in 1900. He continued to be a mainstay in Democratic Party politics and somewhat of a political kingmaker. Throughout the 1900s, he wrote numerous editorials supporting progressive causes, including anti-imperialism and the fighting of economic trusts. Daniels went on to become Secretary of the Navy under President Wilson.

As Lee Craig noted in his able biography of Daniels, the Naval Secretary was a key player in the blockade of Germany during the First World War, and helped guide the nation through its victory in that war. Daniels later served as ambassador to Mexico and played a key role in staffing and policy throughout the Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt administrations. He had an outsize role in early 20th-century politics on both the state and national level, more so than almost any of his contemporaries.

In addition, there is ample evidence that Josephus Daniels moderated his views on race later in life. His son, leading Southern liberal Jonathan Worth Daniels, recalled his father’s disgust at the Washington race riots of 1918, both with the actions of the whites and the knowledge that many of his sailors took part. The elder Daniels also wrote in his memoirs on how his earlier actions were inherently cruel.

On the issue of the white supremacy campaigns, Daniels and Craig both argued that those campaigns were rooted more in virulent partisanship than a hatred between races. However, both authors also agreed this was only an explanation, not an excuse.

So what to make of Daniels’ statue in Raleigh’s Nash Square, or the student stores at UNC that bear his name? Is Daniels’ later repentance an argument for keeping the monuments that bear his name, or should he still be branded an advocate for white supremacy and relegated to a museum?

There is no easy answer. Numerous other figures, most notably Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, have a similarly complicated legacy, and a decision from a historical commission will only invite more debate and outrage. Taking down monuments is in itself a binary question that restricts the possibility of treating complex figures in nuanced ways. The line of white supremacist versus acceptable historical figure does not fit the realities of historical development. Until we resolve these issues, we still will not know what to do with the statue of Josephus Daniels, the man who helped make this newspaper what it is today.

Eric Medlin, who has a master’s degree in history, is a writer living in Raleigh.

What Twitter said about Durham

The @NOOpinionShop Twitter account recently polled followers on whether the Durham protesters’ action in toppling a Confederate statue was justified. Out of 184 respondents, 26 percent voted yes, and 74 percent voted no.