Fighting for freedom can take many forms.
My great uncle, Elmore Cottongim, fought the Germans in Sicily, then Italy, then France and Germany. He was in an anti-tank company in the 3rd Infantry Division, from 1943 to 1945. I can only imagine the things he saw, felt and experienced in those years. He would never talk about it, only shake his head whenever anyone would ask.
My great-great grandfather, Lewis K. Harris, served in the Civil War–from one of the first battles (Rich Mountain) to one of the last (Mobile). He fought on the bloody fields of Shiloh and took part in Grant’s push toward Vicksburg. For the rest of his life, he was partially deaf in one ear and suffered from a hernia. Many of the men who fought in that terrible war suffered much worse, or never returned home at all.
Jacob Troup, a six-times-great grandfather of mine, fought for freedom in the American Revolution. In 1781, he served with Virginia militia as they fought the British at Yorktown. He was one of those who never returned home. His widow raised their three young children without him.
Many others from my family fought in wars where bullets flew and lives were lost. But the battle for freedom isn’t always fought on traditional battlefields. Sometimes it’s not about generals and corporals, artillery and infantry, bullets and corpses. Sometimes it’s about ideas.
My great grandfather, Edward H. Harris, was a warrior for freedom, but he never donned a uniform or picked up a gun. Yet when he died on October 24, 1937, his obituary ran in major newspapers across the country–more than could be said of Elmore Cottongim, Lewis K. Harris or Jacob Troup.
The New York Times called my great grandfather a “defender of the freedom of the press.” The Chicago Tribune said he took a “leading part in the struggle to safeguard the press” and he “saw the danger and acted with admirable courage and tenacity.”
Throughout his career as a newspaper publisher, E.H. Harris stood up for what he believed. In the 1920s, he used his influence in the publishing world to fight the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. When radio became popular in the 1920s and 30s, he helped ensure that Hitler’s propaganda wasn’t broadcast over American airwaves, while trying at the same time to protect the freedom of the press we Americans hold dear.
The rise of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal provided my great grandfather with one last battle to fight. The freedom of the press came under attack and government domination of newspapers and radio was a real possibility.
When E.H. Harris died in the midst of this battle for freedom, Editor & Publisher magazine called him “one of the foremost advocates of the freedom of the press in the country.” This was quite an epitaph for a publisher of small daily newspaper in Richmond, Indiana–a man with no professional training in journalism who had started his adult life as a bookkeeper and a teller at a bank.
I’m still learning about my great grandfather. I read his writings and his speeches; I look for books that describe what was going on in those first few decades of the twentieth century. I want to understand more about him and the battles he fought. I want to get a sense of the ideas that were important to him.
Ideas are important to me. We fight for ideas with words, like the ones my great grandfather used to battle the KKK, foreign propaganda and government control of the press. Words have great value and significance.
My great grandfather died at age 57, and I’ve always figured what killed him was the stress of publishing the newspaper and struggling for the ideas he considered important. Thirty-two years later, my grandfather died at age 52. He had followed in his father’s footsteps and become a newspaper publisher who fought for freedom too.
My grandfather died just a few years before I was born. I often wonder what it would have been like to sit down with him and talk about the ideas he held dear. What would he have told me about my great grandfather? What would he have said about newspaper publishing and freedom?
I wonder what words we would have shared.