“If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row”

Hyde Smith

Cindy Hyde-Smith is a Republican politician who represents Mississippi in the United States Senate.  On November 27 she will face Mike Espy, an African-American Democrat and former Mississippi Secretary of Agriculture, in a run-off election.  Donald Trump has endorsed Hyde-Smith.

At a campaign stop on Sunday, Hyde-Smith referenced a local rancher with these words: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”

Patrick Connelly, a history professor at Mississippi College in Clinton, provided some historical context on his Twitter feed:

 

The Author’s Corner with Robert Ferguson

51tsc6ALGHL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Robert Ferguson is Assistant Professor of History at Western Carolina University. This interview is based on his new book, Remaking the Rural South: Interracialism, Christian Socialism, and Cooperative Farming in Jim Crow Mississippi (University of Georgia Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Remaking the Rural South?

RF: This book was adapted from a dissertation I wrote while a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I knew when I arrived to UNC that I wanted to research race relations in the rural South. After discussing ideas with my advisor, Fitzhugh Brundage, he suggested that I meet with the archivists at the Southern Historical Collection which housed on UNC’s campus. When I told them my very general and undeveloped plans for a dissertation, they showed me the 11.5 linear feet of documents they had pertaining to two intentional, interracial communities in rural Mississippi at the height of the Jim Crow era. I was hooked. Thank goodness for archivists!

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Remaking the Rural South?

RF: Focusing on two interracial, Christian socialist communities in the rural South, the book argues that former sharecroppers and their allies enacted significant cultural shifts that placed their communities in the vanguard of human rights struggles in the 1930s to the 1950s. From the Great Depression to the civil rights movement, residents of Delta Cooperative Farm and Providence Farm acted out moments of modification that created egalitarian, democratic communities and which were ultimately quashed by white massive resistance to the black freedom struggle.

JF: Why do we need to read Remaking the Rural South?

RF: In times of national polarization, history doesn’t have to be a weight that paralyzes us. We should never look at the world and say, “well, it’s always been that way” and then go about our days weighted down by an ahistorical, erroneous understanding of the past while doing nothing about the present. Rather, history can liberate us when we understand that in the face of overwhelming hardships—such as, say, the Great Depression or Jim Crow—historical actors have posed radical changes and set about achieving those changes.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RF: My father and grandmother were high school history teachers. I grew up in a house where the past was part of our daily conversations. We loved good stories. We especially loved uplifting stories. And while the past is full of astonishing tragedy, it can also be the source of inspiration. By the time I was a teenager, I was already reading about the civil rights movement and other minority freedom struggles that allowed me to imagine alternatives to the sometimes problematic race relations I witnessed growing up. Even now, as a historian, writer, and teacher, I seek out the stories of everyday Americans who have struggled against the status quo. If my readers and students find some inspiration there, all the better.

JF: What is your next project?

RF: I’m currently working on an environmental and economic history of how the boom and eventual bust of twentieth century industries have lead to a new era in southern history. In particular, by looking at industries that have relied on harnessing water – textiles, energy, and beer – I argue that while most of the twentieth century experienced almost unfettered industrial growth, since the 1970s many small towns across the region have begun to resemble the Rust Belt rather than the Sunbelt, complete with environmental degradation and economic decline.

JF: Thanks, Robert!

Mississippi Historians: “Take the Flag Down!”

Mississippi State Flag

From the Jackson Free Press:

As college professors, we have watched events of the past few days in Charlottesville and around the country while preparing for a new semester. We know that students in our classes will bring many questions and perspectives about this moment in history. They will look for us to comment on a response from the president that many Republicans and Democrats alike found deeply troubling and insufficient. They will wonder why many white nationalists and racist groups feel empowered at this moment in time. We have our work cut out for us.

In turn, we are also historians in and of the state of Mississippi, where white massive resistance to black advancement has been the norm for 200 years. It is now incumbent upon us to take the strongest of stands against the white supremacist establishment in this nation and in this state and put this recent wave of white nationalism in historical context.

With that in mind, it is long past time for the emblem identified with the Confederate States of America to be removed from the state flag of Mississippi. This flag does not reflect the entirety of the state’s history and people. It ignores the reality of the African American experience, and it limits the scope of what Mississippi has been, is and can be.

Historians have long held that the Civil War was fought for the right of southern states to maintain and expand the institution of slavery. In declaring their support for the Confederacy, Mississippi’s leaders clearly stated in the secession ordinance of 1860, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. … A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”

Read the rest here.  The statement was signed by over thirty historians from Mississippi colleges and universities including the following friends of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Alison Greene, Otis Pickett, Daren Grem, and Patrick Connelly.

Should Mississippi Remove the Confederate Emblem on its Flag?

Flag_of_Mississippi.svgSome of you may remember historian Otis Pickett from his excellent post on teaching history in a Mississippi prison. Read it here.

Pickett teaches at Mississippi College in Clinton.  He recently wrote an op-ed in the Clarion-Ledger arguing that the Confederate emblem on the Mississippi flag must go.

Here is a taste:

After the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag took on new meanings on the Southern landscape. It became thoroughly identified with a movement known as the Lost Cause, which sought to memorialize and preserve a collective Southern memory celebrating the Confederacy. However, as African-Americans were entering into civic spaces, running for office and voting in large numbers during Reconstruction and into the 1880s, they began to represent to Southern whites many of the great changes affecting the Southern landscape — chief among them a threat to Southern white political power. The Confederate flag began to be used publicly as a symbol that represented a return to “white rule.” Further, the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 became a legal tool to help whites regain political control through massive disenfranchisement of African-Americans. Through literacy clauses, poll taxes and interpretation clauses, African-Americans were almost entirely removed from the voting process in Mississippi until the mid-1960s. In the midst of this, attacks on African-Americans in the form of lynchings and violent intimidation attempted to keep African-Americans from political activity or challenging a new system of white control.

What became known as the Mississippi Plan would soon travel to other Southern states, which would adopt similar state constitutions, and Mississippi would become the model of how whites could regain political control and reassert their power. For instance, convict leasing, in a sense, re-enslaved thousands of African-American males who were charged and sent to prison for violating ridiculous vagrancy laws. Men and boys were arrested and sent to work back in the same cotton fields that their ancestors worked as enslaved people. On a larger scale, sharecropping and tenant farming kept African-American laborers in cycles of debt and poverty for generations. Mississippi laws also limited these laborers from moving around and hiring out their labor to improve their financial position. Typically, the Confederate flag was the rallying symbol used by whites that embodied a reassertion of white political, economic and social control. In a sense, it was the symbol that provided a visible pledge to the aforementioned ideologies, philosophies, laws and social relationships.

It was during this time period, in April of 1894, some 30 years after the Civil War, that the Confederate emblem appeared for the first time on the Mississippi state flag. It was very clear what attaching this symbol to the state flag at this time meant: a return to white rule via violence, intimidation and disenfranchisement in order to regain an antebellum Southern “way of life” in which African-Americans were in their “proper” place. The flag was symbolic of a return to white-controlled state politics and segregated social relationships. The Confederate flag also came to resemble the enforcement of the Jim Crow system through violence and intimidation. Mississippi would become the No. 2 state in the nation in lynchings per capita. There was a constant threat of violence against African-Americans, and the Confederate flag became the symbol associated with that violence.

During the early to mid-20th century, the Confederate flag became a symbol for the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations that experienced a resurgence in the early 1920s. For just about all African-Americans and many whites, the Confederate flag became a symbol connected with hatred.

Since the late 1800s, the Confederate battle flag has been used as an emblem of rebellion against integration and human equality and has, as a symbol, come to do little more than create division.

Read the entire piece here.

Pickett’s powerful plea for justice (make sure you read the whole thing) has met with some opposition.  A writer at a conservative website in Mississippi recently argued that if the Confederate emblem is removed from the state flag then, by the same logic, we should also get rid of the Lincoln Memorial.  Read it here.

I think the author of this conservative piece needs to sit down and read the Second Inaugural and then see if he still thinks the leaders of Mississippi during the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era are the moral equivalent of Lincoln.

Nice work, Otis!

The Civil War Centennial in Jackson, Mississippi

Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory found this on You Tube.  Here is what he writes:

Check out this short video of a Civil War centennial parade in Jackson, Mississippi in March 1961. There is no shortage of Confederate flags. It certainly is a wonderful example of how these events rallied white communities at the height of the civil rights movement.

There does appear to be two black individuals in the parade, one pushing a wheelbarrow at the 54 second mark, but I am not sure what to make of it.

The Author’s Corner with Joseph T. Reiff

Joseph T. Reiff is Professor of Religion and Chair of Religion Department at Emory & Henry College. This interview is based on his new book, Born of Conviction: White Methodists and Mississippi’s Closed Society (Oxford University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Born of Conviction?

JR: I grew up in Mississippi Methodism and knew a couple of the signers of the “Born of Conviction” statement when I was a child in the early 1960s. Though I did not know about the statement then, I was certainly aware of tensions in the white church related to the race issue and the civil rights movement, and in October 1963 I witnessed an interracial group of visitors get arrested at the front steps of my church simply for attempting to worship there. In the mid-1970s at Millsaps College I became friends with two fellow students who had family members involved in the Born of Conviction controversy. I first saw the statement in 1983 when I was a United Methodist pastor in Mississippi, and I photocopied it. When I began teaching, I used the statement as a case study of the clash between a dominant culture and the Christian faith, or more accurately, between cultural Christianity and an attempt to be faithful to the Christian gospel even when such a stance challenges the cultural status quo. When historians Wayne Flynt, Andrew Manis, and Joel Alvis presented papers at a symposium on Southern religion on my campus in 2002, I was inspired to pursue the project, and I began interviewing surviving signers of “Born of Conviction” in 2003.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Born of Conviction?

JR: Though its language seems mild now, the publication of the “Born of Conviction” statement by 28 white Mississippi Methodist ministers in January 1963 caused a significant crack in the false façade of white unanimity in support of segregation in Mississippi. Most of the many brief published mentions of the statement have summarized it as “the signers spoke out and were forced out of Mississippi,” but that is too simple for a number of reasons: the signers received a good deal of affirmation for their stand, though much of it was private; the 20 signers who left Mississippi did so for a wide range of reasons, often involving free choice; and eight of the signers remained in the state for the rest of their careers.  

JF: Why do we need to read Born of Conviction?

JR: It is a powerful story of some white Methodist clergymen who spoke against the tide when massive resistance in Mississippi was at its peak. The white church there usually not only failed to support the black freedom struggle, it also often actively resisted it; here is an alternative narrative: ministers who spoke to a statewide audience in support of change. The negative response to their effort was predictable, but the book offers a complex view of white attitudes on race relations in 1963 Mississippi by examining the responses to the statement: from individuals and congregations in public and private ranging from negative to ambivalent to positive. It is a thick description of white Methodism in Mississippi in the civil rights era and also looks at church efforts to help create the “new Mississippi” after 1964.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JR: My training and experience is in practical and pastoral theology as well as qualitative
religious research. When I started a religion Ph.D. program after five years as a local church pastor, I wanted to center my work on pastoral and ecclesiological issues. My dissertation was a study of an unusual United Methodist congregation in Atlanta’s historic Grant Park neighborhood; the church came back from near death in the mid-1980s due to an influx of “cultural left” Baby Boomers and their children, and I was there to study it as an observer-participant. Because the church was founded just after the Civil War, I wove historical research into my consideration of social ethics, ecclesiology, and Christian formation in that congregational subculture. The fundamentally interdisciplinary character of history makes it an excellent platform on which to explore a variety of ethical, pastoral, and ecclesiological issues in Born of Conviction.  

JF: What is your next project?

JR: I am planning to write a biography of Roy C. Clark, a Mississippi Methodist pastor who left the state in 1963 and was eventually elected a United Methodist bishop. Clark grew up in Mississippi as the son of a Methodist Episcopal Church, South pastor and graduated from Yale Divinity School in 1944. He was a great preacher and classic Southern theological moderate/liberal; Davis Houck and David Dixon included a sermon of his in the second volume of their Rhetoric, Religion, and the Civil Rights Movement. I look forward to interviewing people who knew Clark in Mississippi, Memphis, Nashville, and South Carolina, and to diving into his voluminous papers in order to tell his story and explore his theology, preaching, and leadership in the embattled context of the mid-20th century South.

JF: Thanks, Joseph!