My Mississippi grandfather romanticized the Confederacy. My father fled the state.
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?
THE GOVERNOR’S PAST
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.