Who was Elijah Parrish Lovejoy? Why Should Hoover Invoke Him? Why Should We Care?

Elijah Elliot Parrish
Elijah Elliot Parrish

On November 7th, 1937, Hoover addressed students and faculty at Colby College, invoking Elijah Parrish Lovejoy, American martyr who died defending freedom of the press.  Hoover’s audience knew the Lovejoy story well.  I did not.  Lovejoy was a Colby College graduate and class poet who moved to St. Louis in 1827.  He became an abolitionist newspaper editor, publishing the Saint Louis Observer, supporting emancipation.  As Missouri was a slave state, Lovejoy faced resistance. This opposition ultimately led him to relocate to Alton, Illinois, where he continued to write abolitionist editorials.

While Illinois was ostensibly a free state, there were still many who resented Lovejoy’s writing.  Local citizens first destroyed his press several times in one year. Nevertheless Lovejoy persisted, rebuilding his press and continuing to promote abolition.  On November 7, 1837, a mob attacked the building and lynched Lovejoy.  In death, Lovejoy became a martyr to the cause of abolition, and later was hailed as a martyr to the cause of a free press.  Hoover said that Lovejoy’s legacy was ‘a splendid endowment, one that bricks and mortar could never match, the very life stream of advancing liberalism.’

Hoover went on to say that freedom of speech and the press have been under attack for the last twenty years.  On the one hand this attack is obvious.  Dictators suppress all free speech except their own.  On the other hand the attack is insidious.  Propaganda and advertising poison free speech and free press.  He observes: ‘Propaganda moves by tainting of news, by making synthetic news and opinions and canards. It promotes emotions of hate, fear and dissension.’ Hoover concludes: ‘Free press is more than a publisher’s privilege. It is a right of free people. It will only survive through honest pursuit of the truth’

In 1952, Colby College created the Elijah P. Lovejoy Journalism Award to honor journalists who have made significant contributions to the world.  Lovejoy winners read like a Who’s Who of American journalism. Katherine Graham, Daniel Reston, Studs Terkel, Bob Woodward and Daniel Pearl have all won this award.  Last year, departing from long tradition of honoring only one journalist, the committee gave the Elijah P. Lovejoy Journalism Award to sixty-six journalists who were killed in the course of pursuing their craft. A fitting tribute to the efforts of the men and women who died in honest pursuit of the truth.

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