A tall Confederate statue stands in a median in a highway through Brandon, Miss., the county seat of Rankin County
For the second year in a row, Gov. Tate Reeves signed his Confederate Heritage Month proclamation on April 7, 2021, then quietly gave it to on the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Camp 265 Rankin Rough & Ready’s, which posted it on their Facebook page. Reeves is from Rankin County where the Confederate statue stands downtown in a median in the middle of the main thoroughfare. Engraved text states that Confederate soldiers died for principles that "live forever" and that will "rise again." Photo by Donna Ladd

‘Woke’ in Mississippi: Annual ‘Confederate Heritage Month’ Always a Rude Awakening

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “woke” and why young people leave our home state, often with deep conflicted feelings that while we want to help Mississippi grow and prosper, we have to escape for our own mental wellbeing. I did this the day after I graduated from Mississippi State in 1983 and was gone for 18 years before returning home to use my journalism training in the place I love the most, warts and all. I wanted to tell real stories here that do not ignore the darkest parts of Mississippi’s history on the road to actually turning the corner together as a state into solutions and a more loving and accepting place for all of us.

Simple, right?

You could say now that I was more “woke” when I returned. Not politically or in a partisan way, mind you—I’ve never appreciated partisanship or broken two-sided politics. But in the time that I was outside Mississippi, I spent a lot of time studying our real history. You know, the history they wouldn’t teach us in school. In fact, I don’t remember one teacher at Neshoba Central ever saying a single word to me about the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner there when I was 3—the biggest news event my hometown has ever seen. I had to dig into archives, first at the Neshoba County Library, then at Mississippi State and later at Columbia University when I was pursuing a master’s in journalism.

My studies of newspaper archives and primary sources, and some good learning from Dr. Manning Marable at Columbia, both widened my understanding from the racism in my native South to what really happened across the country, and it awakened me, you could say. It also made me want to come on back home and face down, and report, demons I needed to confront as a white Mississippian. I must be part of the solution.


Mississippi 1864 and 1964 Logic All Over Again

Secretary of State Michael Watson’s comments about “woke” young people, first reported by Mississippi Free Press reporter Ashton Pittman on April 6, stabbed my jugular, you could say. I grew up a young person here wanting to love my state but angry that so much history was kept from me, replaced by lies and excuses, blocking me from believing I could actually be part of creating a better future here for everyone. Especially a future that fairly and equitably included those without my white skin that too many have long believed makes me and them superior.

It’s like too many people, grasping at a mythical, unflawed and glorious Mississippi (and U.S.) past, want us all to live in a perpetual Confederate Heritage Month state of ignorance. Repeat after us, they say: None of us did anything wrong then, and we should honor our ancestors no matter what they participated in or even how many human beings they owned. 

“Knowing the truth in Mississippi must stop being a reason to insult our people and belittle good education,” writes MFP co-founder and chief editor Donna Ladd. Photo by Ken Gordon

Being “woke” about our history, and using it to finally help us move past it together and focus on real solutions to inequities those actions deliberately created for us now, is a terrible, terrible thing, we’re scolded. Some even believe those of us, and especially college students, who learn the real history that was intentionally whitewashed from our textbooks, should not even be able to vote.

Leaders believing that learning the truth is dangerous is Mississippi 1864 and 1964 logic all over again, and it is terrifying.

Speaking the Too-Long-Quiet Part Out Loud

Then, just as I noticed and reported back in 2016 after years of media not paying attention, Mississippi’s governor again quietly declared Confederate Heritage Month and, this time, slipped the declaration to the Sons of Confederate Veterans group in Rankin County, where he lives when not in the mansion downtown. Gov. Reeves didn’t announce it publicly this year, either. This shows both whose feelings he favors in this state and disrespect for us Mississippians willing to acknowledge and speak the too-long-quiet part out loud: The Confederacy formed and started the insurrection against the United States to maintain and extend slavery. It’s not like the Confederates themselves didn’t declare this often and proudly.

Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Here at the Mississippi Free Press, we continually embed historic context into our journalism because our people have the right to know our full history even if it’s often uncomfortable for many. We ride or die on the adage that “the truth will set us free.”

The Natchez Democrat wrote an amazing editorial based on my “Confederate Heritage Month” reporting, as did the Los Angeles Times (which also admitted California’s own racist past). A week earlier, The Washington Post used Ashton’s breaking “woke college students” report to add context to a national editorial about efforts to limit voting rights to people, supposedly more informed to vote.

The Sept. 24, 1962 issue of Sports Illustrated featured cheerleaders carrying Confederate flags onto the football field. Image courtesy Sports Illustrated. Mississippi college students are much more likely to reject racist symbols today, but older white Mississippians still too often tell them to get “in line” or leave the state, as they did her years ago, MFP editor Donna Ladd writes.

Tragically, such disparaging and overtly bigoted rhetoric is still with us—used in the place of a serious debate about the details of voting access and clearly as a way to tell many of us we don’t belong in our home state. I grew up hearing that I should leave if I didn’t go along with the old ways in Mississippi, and I threw my cap and gown into the back of the big truck backing up near the Hump at State, and left my home state the next morning. They had beaten me. I thought.

Yesterday, I saw an older white man try to run off one of our 20-something freelance writers, a young white woman of faith and compassion who dared share a letter she wrote to Gov. Reeves asking him to rescind Confederate Heritage Month.

“I am very proud to be a Mississippian,” her former public high-school teacher posted under her letter. “Everything I have is because of Mississippi. If your home state offends you so much I will encourage you to move somewhere else more inline (sic) with your beliefs.”

Beyond the privilege of thinking he—a teacher, for God’s sake—gets to tell a fellow Mississippian to leave because of her stated beliefs steeped in kindness, knowledge and compassion, this man just doesn’t get it. She and I and so many others demand that our state be kinder toward all its citizens and reverse the habits and beliefs of the past precisely because we love our home and want to be proud of it—instead of having to run from here with PTSD about how our neighbors are treated and disrespected, not to mention ourselves when we speak up.

We choose love and knowledge over lost causes and mythology.

We Are Here to Tell the Truth: Help Us

The Mississippi Free Press team is here to do this truth-telling journalism, and model it for the nation, and we appreciate your support. This week, in fact, we are launching our spring Truth-to-Power giving campaign because, let’s just say, our phones are blowing up with story tips from all over the state, and we need more journalists and editors to keep this work growing and having remarkable and immediate impacts inside and outside the state.

The engraved language on the Confederate statue in a highway median in downtown Brandon, Miss., in Rankin County, delivers a message strongly focused on celebrating the cause of the Confederacy. Some of the statues, instead, honor the soldiers who fought. Photo by Donna Ladd

Please give at whatever level you can. Small (or larger) recurring donations are wonderful for us and easier for you. Visit mfp.ms/donate to give online or write publisher [email protected] to discuss a larger gift or challenge match to help create reporting resources between now and July 1. Our goal is to raise at least $100,000 more by then, and we’re on our way with new donations this week in response to our latest journalism.

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Let’s do this, Mississippi. A brighter future awaits, but it takes all hands on deck to build a strong state for all of our people. Even if some would prefer we shut up and go away.

A shorter version of the above editor’s note originally appeared in the MFP weekly Saturday newsletter recapping the previous week’s reporting, MFP Live episode, and media coverage, awards and impact of our journalism. Please subscribe to the newsletter and daily headlines free. 

This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected] We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.

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