As you probably noticed, the Commonwealth is starting the new year with a new “flag” at the top of the front page.
2021 marks the 125th year of continuous publication of this newspaper, making the Commonwealth one of the oldest businesses in Greenwood.
We spent a few weeks mulling over and tinkering with what the look of the flag should be for this anniversary year. John McCall, a talented graphic artist who works full time at Mississippi Valley State University and part time with us, gets credit for the design.
The biggest point of discussion was what to do about the cotton boll, which has been an element in the flag since 1967, although in different forms and in different sizes.
Susan Montgomery, a writer and editor who has been affiliated with the Commonwealth the longest of any living person, advocated for the cotton boll’s retirement. She suggested we replace it with an oak tree, a tribute to this city’s beautiful treescape and the stately oaks that line many of its most historic streets.
The cotton boll is admittedly a bit of an anachronism. Although Greenwood still claims the title of “Cotton Capital of the World,” that hasn’t been factually true for a while. Once the dominant crop in Leflore County, cotton now comes in a distant third to corn and soybeans for planted acres — a change that can be blamed on the politically motivated ethanol subsidies that have made growing grains more lucrative than fiber.
Still, I couldn’t do it.
John Emmerich, who bought the paper in 1973, made the cotton boll even more prominent on the flag than it had already been. There’s nothing prettier than a cotton field in full bloom in the fall, and I surmise that Mr. Emmerich felt the plant was a good branding image. It reflects the agricultural heritage of the area and the way this commodity shaped this complicated part of the world — both for good and bad. It was cotton that provided Greenwood with much of its initial wealth and fostered its development as a city, but it was also cotton that was one of the economic driving forces behind slavery, some of whose ramifications the region still struggles with today.
The Commonwealth has its own complicated history. It was founded in December 1896 as a weekly newspaper by James K. Vardaman, a white supremacist who used its platform to further his political ambitions, winning the governor’s race in 1903.
He would sell the paper in 1905 to James L. Gillespie, who had previously owned a competing Greenwood newspaper, the Enterprise. The Commonwealth stayed in the Gillespie family for the next 68 years, during which it shed its early cantankerous leanings and became a community booster and a largely evenhanded reporter of the news, at least for the segregated times in which it operated. In 1916, the Commonwealth began publishing six days a week.
The main knock on the paper during that period was that its coverage of the community’s Black citizens was slanted and incomplete. It was commonly said that the only time Black people appeared in the Commonwealth was when they were charged with breaking the law.
The late Alix Sanders, an attorney who made history as the first Black to be elected as a supervisor in Leflore County, recalled at the time of the newspaper’s 100th anniversary what the coverage was like during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“Derogatory news about Blacks made the front page,” he said. “But if there was any good news about a Black person, it wasn’t reported. It wasn’t news.”
When Mr. Emmerich, who grew up in the newspaper business in McComb, purchased the Commonwealth, he set about changing that, trying his best to ensure the newspaper covered the entire community honestly and fairly. It is a tradition we have strived to maintain for the past nearly half-century.
These are tough times in the newspaper business. That’s no secret. The advertising climate was already difficult before COVID-19, and the pandemic has only compounded the decline in ad dollars.
The result has been smaller newsrooms, fewer news pages and fewer days of publication.
The Commonwealth is trying to buck some of those trends, even as it transitions to the digital landscape. It is the last daily newspaper in the Delta, and one of now just eight in all of Mississippi.
The business is different than it was when I came here in 1982. At that time, it was just the Commonwealth and its weekly shopper, The Delta Advertiser. Now, in addition to our rapidly growing and developing website, we also publish a quarterly magazine and an annual telephone directory, and we run a pressroom that prints 17 other newspapers each week plus a handful of other monthly publications. With the help of labor-saving technology and out of economic necessity, we’re doing all of this with the lowest number of employees this paper has had in recent history.
Publishing a newspaper is not always easy. There are some long hours involved. But it’s our plan to keep doing it as long as our community wants a reliable, trustworthy, objective source for news five days a week and will support it.
For 125 years, the Commonwealth has weathered some difficult times and adapted to changing circumstances. Our new flag signifies not just our pride in that accomplishment but our refusal to give up now.
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.