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Bridges: Denouncing the views of our founders

John Bridges
The first edition of the forerunner to the Austin American-Statesman published on July 26, 1871, as the Democratic Statesman, a reference to its ties to the Democratic Party of the day. It featured a political statement opposing Reconstruction.

On this date in 1871, the first edition of what would become the Austin American-Statesman hit the streets of our city.

To read that first front page is to travel back to a time far different from our own — and yet frighteningly familiar.

Michael Barnes, our resident historian, provides a fascinating look back at the newspaper’s early days. Over the course of the next year, our 150th year of publication, Michael will provide us with more historical insight as the newspaper and city became what you see today.

We look forward to telling our story — the newspaper’s and the city’s — in many ways leading up to the Statesman’s 150th birthday on July 26, 2021.

But it’s not always a comfortable story to tell, nor one in which we can always take pride.

The newspaper’s very founding as the Democratic Statesman carried a political and racist intent — to support the Democratic Party’s efforts to essentially undo the Civil War and to continue governance by landed white men at the expense of the rights of newly freed Black citizens.

Today, we wholeheartedly denounce those views and the newspaper’s role in advancing them as wrong, shameful and immoral.

In its early years, the Democratic Statesman worked to oppress Black citizens and stoke the fires of white supremacy.

Over time, the newspaper moved away from such hurtful and blatant partisanship and racism. Still, it was guilty of dehumanizing Black people, often simply referring to them as Negroes and not using their names in news coverage.

We must acknowledge the sins of our founding so that we can learn and shape history in a more just direction. That goes for our country, too.

One would like to think that America has come a long way since then. But the long-overdue racial reckoning that has occurred since the death of George Floyd shows that we really haven’t.

It’s been 149 years since that first Statesman edition, and our national arguments remain much the same.

This newspaper, thankfully, evolved long ago. Those of us who carry the mantle now strive to serve the interests of all of Austin and to shine a light on injustice. We’re proud of our diverse and professional staff, which continues to enlighten during this most difficult time of working alone and apart.

Most recently, our pages and websites have helped to foster the local conversation about race. Cedric Golden has effectively used his sports column as a platform for passionate testimony and the role of athletes in fighting racism. Deborah Sengtupta-Stith hosted a series of virtual conversations on institutional racism in Austin’s music scene. Former staff writer Alberta Phillips returned to these pages last Sunday with a personal account of just how ugly and open racism can be in a city that likes to consider itself inclusive and enlightened. These editorial pages have given voice to efforts to end systemic racism.

Careful readers have noticed that last month we began using an uppercase B when describing Black people, culture and communities. We joined other USA Today network newspapers in making this change to reflect an understanding and respect consistent with how many Black people and Black publications describe the people and descendants of the African diaspora and their shared culture and experience. In the weeks since, the Associated Press and the New York Times made similar style changes. All opted not to capitalize “brown” and “white“ because, unlike ”Black,“ those terms are used to describe a wide range of ancestry and cultures; further, the capitalized form of ”white“ has often been used by hate groups.

It’s a significant change, but capitalizing a letter is not enough. Nearly 150 years in, our work is not done, and neither is Austin’s nor America’s.

We at the American-Statesman look forward to telling the stories of our role in the city in this coming year leading to our sesquicentennial. Even more, we look forward to telling the city’s story for many years to come.

Bridges is executive editor of the Austin American-Statesman.

MARK MATSON/FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN. 07.28.15. John Bridges, managing editor. Staff portraits / headshots in the Statesman studio on July 28, 2015. aasstaffmug