As if the coronavirus was not bad enough, here comes the Confederacy from beyond the grave.
Two days after Mississippi went under a shelter-at-home order to combat the spread of COVID-19, Governor Tate Reeves signed “Confederate Heritage Month” into effect.
According to an article in the Jackson Free Press, the proclamation designates April 2020 as a month to remember Mississippi’s role in the Civil War. The document states, “It is important for all Americans to reflect on our nation’s past, to gain insight from our mistakes and successes, and to come to a full understanding that the lessons learned yesterday and today will carry us through tomorrow.”
I agree that reflection on the mistakes of the past is necessary and important, but I do not think that this proclamation and this “Confederate Heritage Month” is the way to do it. The language is too vague and conciliatory, and fails to consider Mississippi as a state that left the Union to defend the institution of slavery.
Before we go further, I understand that less than 10% of the population of the South owned slaves. I understand that for a majority of Southerners it was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” I understand that a combination of economic and political actions (tariffs and legislation) on the part of the North did not benefit the South. Most of all, I understand that history and humanity are complex, and that gray area exists. But I refuse to believe that Mississippi fought for anything more than the protection and preservation of slavery as an economic and social institution.
Reeve’s proclamation assigns no fault to Mississippi or the rest of the Southern states who left the Union for the instigation of the bloodiest war in American history that saw more than 600,000 men die.
Reeves assigns no blame to Mississippi or the rest of the defeated Confederates for rejecting racial reconciliation under Reconstruction and instead authoring the poisonous policies of segregation and institutional racism that haunted America beyond the end of the Civil Rights movement and into the 21st century.
While much has been done to undo such policies, their ghosts still haunt the system today. Racism, handed down like eye color and hair texture, still colors the actions and peppers the thoughts of many people, be they denizens of big cities or generational occupants of small towns.
“Confederate Heritage Month,” per the language of the proclamation, fails to mention any of those things. Its stated goal is “to understand and appreciate our heritage.” The proclamation then is only half right: the people of Mississippi need to understand the facts of the state’s role in the Civil War, but by no means should the reasons and values that compelled Mississippi to act be appreciated.
It is a fact that Mississippi seceded from the United States because of slavery. Its secession documents, written by a convention of delegates over the course of several days, includes a document titled “A Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.”
In this declaration, the delegates of the secession convention list their reasons for seceding. The first reason says, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” The first reason continues, saying that because cotton is best grown in tropical climates, African slaves are the only ones capable of cultivating and harvesting it.
“A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization,” the document states, concluding Mississippi had no other choice but to submit “to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.”
That is not something I can appreciate, and how people can believe that I will never truly “understand.” Nevertheless, it happened. Mississippi fought to keep people in chains. In a way, that is our heritage. But reflection is too soft, too comfortable, and too little. What Mississippi needs is a reckoning.
I propose a Confederate Reckoning Month, where we wrestle with the dark shadows of the past as if our lives depended on it. Because our lives do depend on it. Our ability to move forward into a brighter, better future depends on our ability to settle accounts with our past.
(The secession document can be read via the Documenting the American South collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at this link – https://docsouth.unc.edu/imls/missconv/missconv.html – page 47.)
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