Although the title Commercial Appeal dates from 1894, the roots of this newspaper reach back to the early decades of Memphis’s history. One ancestor, the Weekly (later Daily) Appeal, began in 1841 under Henry Van Pelt. A strongly sectional and Democratic paper, the Appeal had become a leading voice for secessionist sentiment by 1861, equipping and manning an artillery battery that was taken into Confederate service. When Federal forces occupied Memphis in June 1862, the last train south bore the staff and press of the Appeal, which stayed one step ahead of the Union armies for the next three years, publishing in various cities in Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama. The paper returned to Memphis in 1865, where it continued to be a strong Democratic voice. During the war and immediately thereafter, John R. McClanahan and Benjamin F. Dill managed the paper.
A second predecessor was the Daily Avalanche, the first issue of which appeared early in 1858. Even more secessionist than the Appeal, the Avalanche merged with the more moderate Bulletin in late 1861. Union authorities found the politics of the Avalanche so odious that they suppressed the name and only allowed the paper to appear for the rest of the war as the Unionist Bulletin. Less than a year after the Confederate surrender, the Avalanche was back in business.
The city’s fortunes revived in the early 1870s, but yellow fever epidemics that decimated the population and sent survivors fleeing also affected the newspapers. At one time, a staff of one editor and one pressman issued the Appeal. In 1890 the Appeal acquired the rival Avalanche and until 1894, the paper appeared as the Appeal-Avalanche.
The Daily Commercial first appeared in 1889 as a result of a split in the local Democratic Party. Though a newcomer, this paper boasted some of the most respected journalists of the city, and the owners came from elite families. In 1894 the Commercial bought the Appeal-Avalanche, and on July 1, 1894, the first issue of the Commercial Appeal appeared with Edward Ward Carmack (1858-1908) as editor.
Two years later Charles P. J. Mooney assumed the editorship, beginning the modern history of the Commercial Appeal. Mooney’s two stints as editor initiated many firsts and enhanced the Commercial Appeal’s regional and national reputation. By sharing a correspondent with a New York paper, the Commercial Appeal scooped the world with coverage of Admiral Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War. In 1923 the paper became among the first in the nation to acquire its own radio station and it was the first southern paper to publish a Sunday comic section.
The Commercial Appeal was generally liberal on domestic issues, opposing prohibition and favoring woman suffrage. The paper received its greatest honor, a Pulitzer Prize for public service, for its campaign against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. That award also recognized the outstanding talents of cartoonist J. P. Alley; ironically, Alley’s popular syndicated “Hambone’s Meditations” (in which a poor black man waxed philosophical about life) was itself judged racially insensitive and discontinued in 1968.
In 1936 the Scripps-Howard Syndicate bought the Commercial Appeal but allowed the paper an unusual amount of freedom in policy and layout. Like all Scripps-Howard properties, the paper supported Republican candidates for president in every election (except 1964) from 1940 to 1968. Wisconsin-born editor Frank Ahlgren (1903-1995), who served from 1936 to 1968, was a key figure in securing the chain’s endorsement of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.
The morning and Sunday Commercial Appeal always had a larger circulation than its sister property, the Memphis Press-Scimitar, and remains among the top papers in circulation in the South. The Commercial Appeal lent its considerable influence to the establishment and enlargement of the Tennessee Valley Authority and to the creation of the modern Port of Memphis. In recent years its “Thousand Points of Light” series on volunteerism attracted the notice of then-President George Bush, while the paper’s second Pulitzer Prize was awarded to editorial cartoonist Michael P. Ramirez in 1994.
Thomas H. Baker, The Memphis Commercial Appeal: The History of a Southern Newspaper (1971)