My Mis­sis­sippi grand­fa­ther ro­man­ti­cized the Con­fed­er­acy. My fa­ther fled the state.

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Mar­garet McMul­lan

I’m from Mis­sis­sippi. Specif­i­cally New­ton, north of Soso, west of Chunky. When I was grow­ing up, my grand­fa­ther talked about “the war” as though it hap­pened yes­ter­day. He of­ten took me to the Mount Zion Ceme­tery, where a marker hon­ors two boys in our fam­ily. When their fa­ther went to war and they were sup­posed to take care of their mother, th­ese brothers joined the cavalry.

“Yan­kees killed them at the Bat­tle of Murfrees­boro,” my grand­fa­ther told me, tear­ing up.

“They should’ve stayed with their mama,” I snapped. Even as a kid, I was crit­i­cal of my grand­fa­ther ro­man­ti­ciz­ing the lost cause. Even then, I knew “the war” was mostly about slav­ery.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court asked our gov­er­nor, Phil Bryant, to de­fend our state flag — in use since 1894 and the last in the na­tion with a Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle em­blem. The jus­tices gave him un­til Sept. 28 to re­spond to a 2016 law­suit claim­ing the state flag is an un­con­sti­tu­tional relic of slav­ery that vi­o­lates the Con­sti­tu­tion’s guar­an­tee of equal pro­tec­tion for all cit­i­zens.

For the past year and a half, I’ve seen ral­lies, vi­o­lence, hate and emo­tional pain up close. Peo­ple splin­ter over this “flag is­sue” as they force them­selves to face their own past.

My grand­fa­ther hoarded Mis­sis­sippi’s past, and even if it wasn’t his, he wanted to make it his. He made up heroic Civil War sto­ries for his rel­a­tives, never mind that most of them didn’t fight. He bought repli­cas of a Con­fed­er­ate uni­form and flag, stored them in my fa­ther’s old bed­room, wear­ing the jacket and wav­ing the flag once a year, at the end of Christ­mas sup­per.

My fa­ther grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Mis­sis­sippi. In 1962, on the night be­fore the riot protest­ing James Mered­ith’s en­try to the school, seg­re­ga­tion­ist Gov. Ross Bar­nett gave his fa­mous speech at a foot­ball game in Jack­son. My par­ents were there. At half­time, Con­fed­er­ate flag-wav­ing fans un­veiled a gi­gan­tic Con­fed­er­ate flag on the field. Bar­nett went to the 50-yard line and took the mi­cro­phone: “I love Mis­sis­sippi! I love her peo­ple, our cus­toms. I love and I re­spect our her­itage.”

Years later, my fa­ther said

some­thing snapped in him when he heard Bar­nett and saw that flag un­fold. For­ever af­ter that, he con­nected the Con­fed­er­ate flag with Bar­nett, race ri­ots and the hate that per­me­ated my growingup years in 1960s Mis­sis­sippi.

My par­ents at­tended a Joan Baez con­cert in Jack­son an­other year. Af­ter­wards, a young man from out of state couldn’t start his sta­tion wagon. My fa­ther of­fered to help. He and the young man spoke briefly and the two went on their way. Later, my fa­ther rec­og­nized both the sta­tion wagon and the young man in the news­pa­pers. The young man whose car he jump-started was Michael Sch­w­erner, one of the civil rights work­ers mur­dered near Philadel­phia, Miss.


My fa­ther’s de­ci­sion to leave Mis­sis­sippi wasn’t easy. But in the end, he was ready to get us away from the vi­o­lence, the hate, the re­stric­tions and, some would say, ad­van­tages of grow­ing up white in a state among ex­tended fam­ily. He thrived away from the South and away from his fa­ther.

When­ever we vis­ited New­ton, my grand­fa­ther called us Yan­kees. He made us feel mis­er­able — for leav­ing or for re­turn­ing, I was never sure which. One year, some­time in the 1990s, my grand­fa­ther in­tro­duced my fa­ther and me to a new friend, an old white man. My fa­ther rec­og­nized preacher Edgar Ray Killen im­me­di­ately and told me to leave the room. He stayed, star­ing down at his fa­ther sit­ting on the sofa with the former Ku Klux Klan or­ga­nizer who planned and di­rected the mur­ders of three civil rights boys, Sch­w­erner among them. Killen had not been con­victed. I don’t

know what my fa­ther said to his fa­ther later that night, but I heard their raised voices. In 2005, Killen was found guilty of three counts of man­slaugh­ter and is serv­ing out a 60-year sen­tence.

I wrote about the Civil War, Re­con­struc­tion and the Civil Rights era of Mis­sis­sippi in three young adult nov­els, all ded­i­cated to my fa­ther. I hon­estly be­lieved that the dif­fi­cult, vi­o­lent is­sues over race were over. When I told our son about grow­ing up in Mis­sis­sippi, I did not want to sound like my grand­fa­ther, who was now dead. Even so, my 1960s sounded like his 1860s, back when peo­ple went out, beat, and killed other peo­ple be­cause of their skin color and of­ten got away with mur­der.

When my fam­ily left Mis­sis­sippi the sum­mer of 1969, I had grown used to see­ing an­gry white men fly­ing Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flags while wav­ing signs that read “Where are White Civil Rights?” out­side newly de­seg­re­gated schools, din­ers and churches. When I moved back to Mis­sis­sippi in 2015 with my hus­band, I saw them again, an­gry white men fly­ing Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flags, wav­ing signs that read, “Make Amer­ica Great Again” and “Rights for Whites.”

Amer­ica, and specif­i­cally Mis­sis­sippi, knew ex­actly who Don­ald Trump was when they voted for him. He was their an­gry white man, and they would be his sup­port­ers, his army. To me, Trump sounds a lot like Ross Bar­nett with a dif­fer­ent ac­cent.

James Bald­win said in a 1960 speech at Kala­ma­zoo Col­lege, “Those scream­ing peo­ple in the South ... are quite in­ca­pable of telling you what it is they are afraid of ... but they know they are

afraid of some­thing, and they are so fright­ened that they are nearly out of their minds.”

Fear. That’s what I saw this sum­mer at ral­lies for the flag in Hat­ties­burg, Jack­son, Biloxi, Mc­Comb, Tu­pelo and other cities. They are not nec­es­sar­ily afraid of the black Amer­i­can, the Jewish Amer­i­can, the for­eigner or the refugee. They are afraid of the fu­ture, a fu­ture they know will come with or with­out them.

Mis­sis­sippi has the high­est num­ber of recorded lynch­ings of black peo­ple. It was the first state to en­act the Black Codes af­ter Re­con­struc­tion, and it has more ac­tive school de­seg­re­ga­tion cases than any other state. Mis­sis­sippi is tied with Alabama for the great­est num­ber of res­i­dents who con­sider them­selves “re­li­gious,” while hav­ing five ac­tive KKK chap­ters that claim to be the voice for white Chris­tians. This year, Mis­sis­sippi be­came the first state with an elected leg­is­la­tor pub­licly call­ing for lynch­ing those who sup­port re­moval of Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols. And we still call our­selves “the hos­pi­tal­ity state.”

Some say seg­re­ga­tion and civil rights would have even­tu­ally come to Mis­sis­sippi. Maybe. But it took the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and civil rights leg­is­la­tion to out­law le­gal dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Now we might have an­other op­por­tu­nity, ad­vanced again by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. Ten­sions are high. If we take down the cur­rent flag, what would fly over our gov­ern­ment build­ings?


Mis­sis­sippi artist Lau­rin Sten­nis has de­signed a new state flag. Her grand­fa­ther, U.S. Sen. John Sten­nis, fa­mously op­posed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

A lot de­pends upon Phil Bryant, who is in his sec­ond term and by law can­not run again. He’s a mem­ber of The Sons of Con­fed­er­ate Veter­ans, a South­ern her­itage or­ga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports the flag. Like so many Mis­sis­sip­pi­ans, Bryant has a past that has ev­ery­thing to do with the present.

Last year, at a rally on the White House lawn in Washington, I spoke with Edelia Carthan. “I’m the cousin of Em­mett Till,” she said to me and other re­porters from USA TO­DAY and WKYC. “It was Phil Bryant’s un­cle (Roy Bryant) that ad­mit­ted to mur­der­ing Em­mett Till.”

Carthan was sure that with such a past, Gov. Bryant could not or would not al­ter the course or the im­age of Mis­sis­sippi.

I have faith that he can. He has noth­ing to lose.

Mar­garet McMul­lan is the au­thor of seven award-win­ning books. Her forth­com­ing me­moir is Where the An­gels Lived: One Fam­ily’s Story of Ex­ile, Loss, and Re­turn.


Rally to keep the Mis­sis­sippi state flag last year at the Capi­tol in Jack­son. The gov­er­nor has un­til Sept. 28 to re­spond to a law­suit claim­ing the flag is an un­con­sti­tu­tional relic of slav­ery.

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