In a recent video floating around social media, Christian animator and podcast host Phil Vischer explained that the reason that Black Christian and white Christian voters usually hold opposing political views and vote opposite parties, even though they often hold the same religious beliefs, comes down to a mix of “histories and life experiences,” or “what we see when we look in the rearview mirror.” The same holds true for both Black and white Americans in general.
Our experiences along with our knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of history no doubt inform our view of the world. I think this is why it baffled me for so long that there could be a painting of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, slave trader, Confederate cavalry leader who allowed the brutal slaughter of surrendering Black United States troops at Fort Pillow, and first Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, hanging on the wall in the Forrest County Courthouse only steps from the voter registration office glaring at passersby, many of them headed upstairs to the courtroom where justice is supposed to be carried out. It was shocking to me that the image of the hero of the Ku Klux Klan was hanging in the halls of justice in a place with so much racial strife in its past, where a man was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, just for attempting to register Black men and women to vote. However, I have studied Mississippi’s past and how it is remembered for many years. What I see in the rearview is likely much different than what many of you see.
Historian Glenda Gilmore wrote in her book Gender & Jim Crow, “In the segregated South, whites invented a past for posterity by making up on a daily basis as multitude of justifications and rationalizations for racial oppression. Growing up there as a white girl in the 1950s, I lived that fiction. The subsequent separation of self from lies consumed much of my post adolescent, post-civil rights movement life, as I painfully peeled away a tissue of falsehoods and cut through many connections to my upbringing in the segregated South. After that, I believed no truth and took no evidence at face value.” I lived that fiction as a white girl too, but in a different generation from Gilmore. I lived that fiction in post-segregation Petal and Hattiesburg. Nearly every reader who lives in the south has lived it and are still living it.
There is no doubt that there have always been two versions of history in Mississippi – a white version and a Black version that is almost always suppressed. The history we know, at least until recently, has been white. Historians have been working on peeling back those layers of history, hacking through the “Magnolia jungle” as 1950s Petal Paper editor and activist Percy Dale East called it. Those layers are tough though, like the invasive bamboo our late neighbor planted years ago. They multiply like crazy, are extremely thick, difficult to remove, and allow very little light to shine through.
Researching Black history in Mississippi is hard. It is much easier for me, as a white woman, to research my white ancestors than it is for the descendant of a slave, even into the 20th century. The sources are often impossible to find and when you do find them, they are almost always written by white men. Black sources didn’t matter in the past, so they were not preserved like white sources, if they ever existed in the first place.
We must rise above the fiction we have ALL been fed so to inform the present and the future. Over the last few months, you have read information on the Forrest County Confederate monument prepared and presented by Dr. Benjamin Morris and and Professor William Sturkey where they mention the role of the Lost Cause movement in the erection of the monument. If you have not read their work, I highly recommend it before continuing. Therefore, I won’t rehash all they had to say about the Lost Cause except to remind readers that it was a false narrative that attempted to mythologize the Civil War and take the focus off of slavery, turning it into a noble and just cause. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) were the main sources of Lost Cause propaganda. They controlled the narrative of white Civil War history through textbooks, programs for school children, scholarships, fundraisers, etc. Their works celebrating the Ku Klux Klan, including a booklet and textbook, greatly contributed to the re-birth of the Ku Klux Klan in the years leading up to World War I.
If you are like me, you probably did not learn of the Lost Cause until more recently, if at all. I grew up learning history from two of the best teachers a girl could ever have, my mother and grandmother who was a Forrest County educator herself. It was them that instilled an interest in history in me. However, neither of them ever mentioned the Lost Cause. We never talked about the Confederate battle flag, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate monuments or slavery. I honestly do not think they knew what the Lost Cause was. We never even discussed my Confederate ancestors.
The education I received in history in Petal schools was top notch. I never once heard the term Lost Cause, though. If I did, I do not remember it. It is generally not included in curriculum in Mississippi schools. While part of the reason may be a lack of time, I suspect it is more because educators did not, and many still do not, know about the Lost Cause.
It was not until I took undergraduate college courses when I heard the term Lost Cause. It was not in basic history courses either. It was from upper level courses specifically designed for History majors. In fact, it was in an independent study course with one of my professors that I learned the term. If not for that, I may not have learned about the Lost Cause until grad school. I had seen Lost Cause propaganda firsthand in my research and recognized it as such, but I did not have a term for it, and did not begin to understand the bigger picture until then.
As for Forrest, the man who never set foot in Hattiesburg because he died before its establishment, he was glorified and mythologized by Lost Cause propaganda. Those who still buy into the myths will tell you he changed his views on race, quit the Klan, and kissed a Black woman on the cheek in a ceremony where he spoke about equality a few years before his death, making him an “activist for black civil rights.” While some of this is true, Forrest was no activist and is not remembered and revered for those views. He is remembered for his military achievements and his affiliation with slavery and the Ku Klux Klan, and from which his memory cannot be separated.
Modern Ku Klux Klan websites memorialize him directly next to Sam Bowers, the man who ordered the murders of the three Civil Rights workers in Neshoba County in 1964, as well as the murder of Vernon Dahmer, the man now memorialized on the Forrest County courthouse lawn. His name was invoked in a 2016 internet posting by a south Mississippi Klan leader trying to recruit new members saying, “We do it Sam Bowers Mississippi style … I’m hunting people that are wanting to join the Klan of Nathan Bedford Forrest not a Boy Scout group.” The same painting that hangs in the hallway of the courthouse is also on the cover of the 1999 book “A White Man Speaks Out” by Glenn Miller. Miller is a white supremacist now in jail for the murders of three people outside a Jewish community center in Kansas a few years ago.
All that said, if you took Mississippi history in middle school or high school, prior to the 2000s, you likely received an education that mythologized Forrest due to Lost Cause propaganda. In “The Mississippi Story” textbook by Richard A. and Nannie Pitts McLemore, used in Forrest County school in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there are roughly four pages about Forrest and his military achievements. While overall the information presented about Forrest is factually accurate, it only briefly mentions his role in the slave trade and absolutely nothing about his role in the Ku Klux Klan. It does not tell the full story.
It is time we all see what is in the rearview mirror for what it is, a history that belongs to ALL Mississippians and is not colored by myths and propaganda. It is time to reckon with our Jim Crow past, because even though Jim Crow is dead, it is not gone. It’s legacy still lives all around us and in the way we view our history. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups are still around as well. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified a chapter in Moselle, only 20 minutes up the road from Petal, or at least that is where they receive their mail. While no one really knows how many members they have, we do know their numbers are rising and they do exist.
Hacking through the Magnolia jungle and peeling away the layers takes time, but it must be done. Fifteen years ago, I read “The Free State of Jones” by Victoria Bynum for Dr. William K. Scarborough’s Civil War class at USM. I remember writing then how I did not understand why Bynum kept calling Ethel Knight, the author of a previous book about the Free State of Jones, a white supremacist. I did not get it. My view of white supremacists came from the movie “American History X.” I thought white supremacists were only neo-Nazis and skinheads and did not understand how a little old lady could be a white supremacist. Now I understand. I’ve come a long way in my understanding, but it is a journey that I had to take. It’s been tough and it is not over. There is always more to learn. It helps me understand the world though, especially current events and situations in Mississippi.
In just a few days we will vote on the removal of the Confederate monument outside the courthouse. The Forrest paintings will likely remain, as their history has been pointed out to the Board of Supervisors by quite a few people, myself included and Supervisor Woullard, and they do not seem to care, since all it takes is a ladder and a few minutes of time to remove them, unlike the monument. Symbols, like the Forrest painting, reflect the values of a community. Are these our values? It is our responsibility to constantly reevaluate what we see in our rearview mirror in order to make well informed decisions that affect our community and ensure there truly is “liberty and justice for all.”
Lisa Foster is a historian from Petal. Send her a note at email@example.com.