Pulitzer Prize Winner Who Took on KKK Created Racist “Hambone” Comic Strip

J.P. Alley editorial cartoon 1923 (no longer in copyright)

J.P. Alley was born and died during Democratic administrations, entering the world during the first term of Grover Cleveland in 1885, and exiting during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first in 1934. This was a time where Congress, specifically, the U.S. Senate, was controlled by Southern Democrats. Southern Democrats — those Congressional Democrats hailing from the states that made up the former Confederacy and Border States — were virulently racist and dedicated to upholding segregation.

Largely due to Alley’s cartoons, his newspaper, the Memphis Commercial Appeal won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Yet, Alley was best known for his Hambone’s Meditations, a syndicated comic strip featuring a racist, Jim Crow caricature of an African American man.

Life and Career

J.P. Alley’s editorial cartoons supported US entry into World War I

Born James Pinckney Alley near Benton, Arkansas in 1885, the man who would bring the first Pulitzer Prize to a Southern newspaper worked as a pottery maker after his graduation from public school in 1903. Subsequently Alley lived in Little Rock and Greenwood, Mississippi while developing into a commercial artist.

Employed by a Little Rock engraving company in 1908, Alley got married and freelanced as a cartoonist. In 1909, he and his family moved to Memphis, where was employed by the Bluff City Engraving Co. The business was located in the same building as the Commercial Appeal, which proved fortuitous.

Although he took a correspondence course, J.P. Alley’s craft as a commercial artist and cartoonist was largely self-taught. He freelanced for the newspaper before being hired in 1916, becoming its first editorial cartoonist.

Many of his political cartoons employed humor and satire. E. H. Crump, the Boss of Memphis, was a frequent target. The anti-Klan cartoons of 1923 where instrumental in helping defeat Klan-backed politicians in that year’s municipal races.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal was not a liberal newspaper, by any stretch of the imagination. By taking on the politically powerful Klan, which would dominate the following year’s Democratic National Convention (known to history as the “Klanbake Convention”), they were striking out at political corruption.

At the time Alley and the Commercial Appeal took on the Klan, it was near the zenith of its power. The old Klan had died out in the 19th Century, but a new iteration of the Klan was born on Stone Mountain in Georgia in 1915, influenced by D.W. Griffith’s movie The Clansman, which under the title The Birth of a Nation, became the first blockbuster in American cinema history.

Poster for D.W. Griffith’s movie that glorified the K.K.K. (Public domain)

Alley came to fame in Memphis, Tennessee, the home of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who was an enthusiastic member of the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan. The former slave trader rose in the KKK to become its first “Grand Wizard.”

The bodies of Forrest and his wife were buried in a park that was named for him (and subsequently renamed in 2013). An equestrian statue of Forrest that was erected over the remains in 1904 was removed in 2020, and the bodies were disinterred and moved this year.

J.P. Alley’s native Arkansas, after initially wavering over secession, did join the Confederate States of America. Tennessee, Alley’s adopted home, was the last state to formally secede from the Union. (It’s U.S. Senator — Andrew Johnson — remained staunchly committed to the United States and eventually became President with Lincoln’s assassination at the end of the Civil War.)

When one writes about an editorial cartoonist and a newspaper taking on the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, one needs to point out that neither Alley or the newspaper were sympathetic to the plight of blacks in the segregated South.

The Birth of a Nation climaxes with the lynching of a black man by the Klan. (The “Negro” in question actually was a white actor in blackface. His character’s crime: Causing the death of a virtuous white woman via lust he could not contro, said damsel preferring death by suicide than succumb to him.)

In 1917, the Commercial Advertiser played a role in the infamous lynching of Ell Parsons, a black man who allegedly admitted that he had murdered a young white girl. The front page of the Commercial Advertiser revealed that a lynch mob intended to burn Parsons alive and informed the public where the lynching was to take place.

“Commercial Appeal” covered the lynching of Ell Parsons on front page that often featured “Hambone”

Memphis lies just above the southern part of the Mississippi Delta region, and most people in the area think of Memphis as the unofficial capital of “The Delta.” The Delta sprawls across the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee.

That Hambone was based on an actual human being, an African American in Greenwood, Mississippi who had been born a slave — a man who felt affection for J.P. Alley, and whom J.P. Alley felt kindly towards — doesn’t obscure the fact that it was a racist caricature that makes modern sensibilities cringe. The question is: How did such an abomination become so popular in the first place?

The fact is, at the time of its creation in the year before America entered World War I, until the termination of “Hambone’s Meditations” in the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, there were white Americans — including liberals who abhorred the Jim Crown relic — who believed that “Hambone” was a way that many African Americans behaved, including King himself. Hambone was another aspect of Uncle Tom, a relic of minstrelry who symbol is still used by whites and blacks.

Such are the ironies of the human condition.

Commercial Artist & Freelance Cartoonist

J.P. Alley’s editorial cartoons supported US entry into World War I

Born James Pinckney Alley near Benton, Arkansas in 1885, the man who would bring the first Pulitzer Prize to a Southern newspaper worked as a pottery maker after his graduation from public school in 1903. Seeking better job opportunities, Alley moved to Little Rock and the on to Greenwood, Mississippi while developing his talent as a commercial artist.

Employed by a Little Rock engraving company in 1908, Alley got married and freelanced as a cartoonist. In 1909, he and his family moved to Memphis, where was employed by an engraving company that was situated in the same building that housed the Commercial Appeal, which proved fortuitous.

Although he took a correspondence course, J.P. Alley’s craft as a commercial artist and cartoonist was largely self-taught. He freelanced for the newspaper before being hired on as a full-time employee in 1916, becoming its first editorial cartoonist.

Memphis was, in post-World War II popular culture mythology, the place where “The Blues” were born. W.C. Handy was hailed as the “Father of the Blues.”

One of his songs was “Mr. Crump Blues,” a satire on E.H. “Boss” Crump, who also was a target of J.P. Alley’s editorial cartoons. One of the most powerful political machine leaders in America, Boss Crump was the overlord of Memphis for over 40 years— first as the elected mayor from 1910 to 1915 (and again, for one day in 1940) and then as someone more powerful than mayors, the Man Who Picked the Mayor.

Eventually elected to Congress and the Democratic National Committee, Boss Crump was was a power in Tennessee state politics. He had an alliance with blacks, who voted Republican — the Party of Lincoln — before 1960, particularly in the South.

Memphis was segregated, and segregation was enforced, but blacks were enfranchised in the Bluff City, the unofficial capital of The Delta. (Crump himself was born in Mississippi.)

J.P. Alley’s anti-Klan cartoons of 1923 where instrumental in helping defeat Klan-backed politicians in that year’s municipal races. A national phenomenon in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was thoroughly aligned with the Democratic Parties of many states, from California to Indiana — states lacking urban ethnic Catholics and Jews, as the KKK targeted Catholics and Jews along with black folk.

The Memphis Commercial Appeal was not a liberal newspaper, by any stretch of the imagination. By taking on the politically powerful Klan, which would dominate the following year’s Democratic National Convention (known to history as the “Klanbake Convention”), they were striking out at political corruption.

They may have been helping Boss Crump, too. The afternoon newspaper, the Memphis Press-Scimitar, was anti-Crump.

When one writes about men like Boss Crump and black folk, one must remember that the attitude of these whites wasn’t one of enlightenment. They had a paternalistic view towards blacks. Their relationships with black folk was one of utility.

Hambone’s Meditations

“Hambone’s Meditations” were first published in book form in 1919

While Alley’s editorial cartoons were central to the Commercial Appeal’s attack on the Klan that resulted in its Pulitzer Prize, his Hambone cartoons — popular amongst whites not just in the South but across the country — were seen as racist by African Americans, who despised them.

The character of Hambone debuted in 1916 in one of his editorial cartoons. It developed into its own comic strip, Hambone’s Meditations, which eventually began appearing on the front page of the Commercial Appeal.

Hambone was a traditional Jim Crow caricature, with exaggerated “n — — lips.” Unfortunately, Hambone was not the first such representation, nor would “he” be the last. Jim Crow imagery flourished in the world of American marketing, so much so that the use of Hambone became popular in advertisements and licensed merchandise.

Like Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus, Hambone spoke in a white man-constructed dialect that is, to the modern reader, sometimes incomprehensible.

The character of Hambone debuted in 1916 in one of his editorial cartoons. It developed into its own comic strip, Hambone’s Meditations, which eventually began appearing on the front page of the Commercial Appeal.

“What America Needs is…”

The Hambone Cigar Advertising was a play on Charles Lindbergh’s 1st Transatlantic flight

York, Pennsylvania-based cigar manufacturer W.C. Fruitiger Co. produced Hambone cigars. The Hambone “Sweet” cigar box and advertising materials featured a cartoon of Hambone as an aviator, in a nod to Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 Transatlantic crossing. Retailed at a cost five cents, the Hambone Sweet was on the market from the 1920s through the 1950s.

Whether the Hambone cigar fulfilled the wish of Thomas Marshall, who served as vice president under virulent racist Woodrow Wilson, is a question lost to time. (As President of the Senate, Marshall entered American lore with his comment — a quip about a Senator’s speech — “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar.”)

Other tobacco companies put out Hambone cigarette tobacco. Hambone also was used to sell various other products.

Hambone became so popular, Alley syndicated it as a comic strip. He published many collections of his Hambone cartoons, the first in 1919.

A Second Generation Carries On

J.P. Alley editorial cartoon

The 49 year-old J. P. Alley passed away on April 16, 1934, and his job as the Commercial Appeal’s editorial cartoonist passed on to his oldest son, Calvin “Cal” Alley.

Nona Alley, J.P.’s wife, wrote the dialogue for the Hambone cartoons. Along with Cal and her son James, the Alley Family kept Hambone’s Meditations alive for another 34 years. It finally ceased publication in 1968, collateral damage of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was murdered in Memphis in 1968.

Dr. King had made two trips to Memphis in 1968, to aid a strike of sanitation workers, all of whom were African American, that being a “black” job at the time. Hambone’s Meditations still was appearing on the front page of the Commercial Appeal in April 1968.

The striking Memphis sanitation workers openly criticized the Hambone comic. Editorially, the Commercial Appeal was against the civil rights movement. Historically, it had published articles arguing that African Americans were genetically inferior to whites. The paper opposed the striking sanitation workers, and Memphis’ black community responded with a boycott of it and its sister paper, the Press-Scimitar.

The presence of Hambone in the newspaper was noted unfavorably by journalist Gary Wills while covering the Martin Luther King assassination. (Hambone’s Meditations was not published on the front page announcing the assassination of Dr. King.) The strip was brought to an end soon after.

J.P. Alley remains a fascinating footnote in America’s history of race. Nearly a hundred years after he helped the first Southern paper win the Pulitzer Prize, African American Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize by refashioning the history of slavery and the United States from a black perspective.

He was voted into the Tennessee Newspaper Hall of Fame in 1993, fourteen years after his son Cal was inducted.

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Jon Hopwood

Jon Hopwood

I am a writer who lives in New Hampshire

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