Stephen D. Lee Confederate Statue at Mississippi State University
The bust of Mississippi State University’s first president, Confederate Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee, has long been an iconic center of the Mississippi State campus from its perch on the Drill Field in front of the building bearing Lee’s name. But the white supremacist led efforts long after the Civil War to successfully rewrite history about the Confederacy and its documented motives out of school textbooks and classrooms, creating a faulty narrative for more than a century—efforts that have drawn little attention, especially in Mississippi. Photo by Donna Ladd

Mississippi State, Starkville Vow to ‘Stand Up’ to Racism, But Historic Reckoning Still Ahead

STARKVILLE, Miss.—“Either change the flag, or I won’t be representing this State anymore & I meant that .. I’m tired,” Mississippi State University running back Kylin Hill tweeted on June 22, 2020. The Black psychology major was responding to Gov. Tate Reeves’ Twitter argument against taking down the state flag that white supremacist legislators chose in 1894, featuring the Confederate battle flag in its canton.

Leading up to Hill’s pivotal tweet, protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Black men police had killed in Mississippi had exploded in the state, with thousands of protesters of all races hitting the streets in cities and small towns, including Jackson, Starkville and Columbus

Kylin Hill tweet Mississippi state flag
Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill’s June 22, 2020, tweet promising he would leave the team unless the Mississippi flag changed may have turned the tide.

This was not the first effort to change the Mississippi flag. In 2001, a state referendum attempted to bring it down, but Mississippians voted along race lines, with 64% opting to keep it flying. But now the flag is down, and like the country as a whole, attention is turning to other symbols of white supremacy and miseducation that still keep systemic racism alive, including a bust of the first MSU president and at least two buildings on campus named for white supremacists.

But the battle to both expose those symbols for the history they really represent and to then change such tributes to old openly racist Confederate veterans may be a tougher battle than changing the state flag. Still, a growing group of students, professors and other Mississippians believe acknowledgement and removal are a vital step toward ending systemic racism in Starkville and in the state overall.

‘What Kept the Ball Rolling Down the Field Towards Change’

After Kylin Hill spoke out, the former Columbus High School standout and current Mississippi State star received what Pastor Joseph Stone Jr., director of the Starkville Stand Up organization, called “venomous attacks” by supporters of the state flag. 

Despite that pushback, eight frantic days later on June 28, the Mississippi Legislature was ready to pass a bill to remove the flag. Rep. Omeria Scott of Laurel even introduced an unsuccessful amendment to get the Mississippi House to name the legislation after 21-year-old Hill for helping spark university presidents and coaches to come to Jackson to demand the flag’s removal.

After Hill made his comments, several other Mississippi State athletes voiced their support. Then, the Mississippi State administration followed suit. University President Mark Keenum, Athletic Director John Cohen and head football coach Mike Leach, all of whom are white, voiced their support for Hill and taking down the flag.

Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill
Rep. Omeria Scott wanted the legislation bringing down the state flag named after running back Kylin Hill (No. 8). Her amendment failed. Photo: Mississippi State University

District Attorney Scott Colom, whose district includes both Starkville and Columbus, was convinced even before the momentous flag vote that this movement is different—a beginning, not just an isolated change.

“I really want people to understand that Kylin Hill’s courageous stand for a new flag is what kept the ball rolling down the field towards change,” Colom told the Mississippi Free Press.

“I could not be more proud of that kid. I think he’ll probably go on to have an amazing NFL career, but nothing he’ll do will probably take as much courage and have as much impact for so many other people as the stand he took (on the flag). It’s very unlikely we’d be at this point if he hadn’t said that.”

The question now for Starkville and Mississippi State is how far they’re willing to go to end racism and confront tributes to racists at home on campus and in Oktibbeha County.

‘More Validity, More Poignancy and More Power’

Pastor Stone is hopeful for real change. He believes that one of the main reasons this anti-racism movement will ultimately succeed, unlike the countless others before it, is because it is whiter than it was in the past.

“We have more of our Caucasian brothers and sisters who are stepping up and speaking out. That’s what’s making the difference,” Stone said in an interview. “You have large companies, you have the Southern Baptist Convention speaking up, so when you have entities of that nature joining the movement, for some reason, whether it’s right or wrong, it gives the movement more validity, more poignancy and more power.”

Pastor Joseph Stone Jr., director of the Starkville Stand Up organization, believes real anti-racism change and education will happen in Oktibbeha County, but it will take time. Stone (right) is working with Mississippi State President Mark Keenum (left) and Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill (center). Photo: Mississippi State University

Oktibbeha County NAACP President Yulanda Haddix said she is confident that Mississippi State’s strong stance against the Mississippi flag made an impact. She was a student at State in the late 1970s into the early 1980s along with her husband, Michael Haddix, who was a Mississippi State and then NFL running back. She says the university has become a champion for equality; however, that was not always the case. 

“There has been a tremendous change. We feel like we belong now,” Haddix told the Mississippi Free Press. “When we were there, Black students stayed together because we felt our comfort zone was with each other. We did not feel that we had a place of belonging on campus. In the ’70s and ’80s, we’d have never been able to speak out and say anything.” 

Haddix said that if her husband would have said the same things Kylin Hill tweeted during his time at MSU, he “probably would have been banned from coming to school.”

Rising senior and Mississippi State meteorology major Symone Thomas agrees that MSU is now a safer space for students of color. “(The university) prides themselves on diversity, and it’s not just something that they claim to do. They actively try to support their minority students,” Thomas said in a July 1 interview. And, in recent weeks, she said, “(their actions) have made me proud to say that’s my school, and these are my leaders standing up for somebody that looks like me.”

However, the predominantly white institution—its student body is 71% white, alongside 75% of faculty—is not without its issues. Thomas says only three students are Black in her graduating year’s meteorology class. Mississippi has the highest proportion of African Americans in the U.S. at 38%, but 21% of MSU’s student body and 17% of faculty are Black.

From a Noose Joke to Real Talk

One of Kylin Hill’s strongest supporters was a white man who had recently faced a race-related crisis of his own making—his head coach Mike Leach. On April 1, Leach, who grew up Mormon in Wyoming, sent a controversial tweet displaying a woman sewing a noose and insinuating its use on her husband. The text read, “After 2 weeks of quarantine with her husband, Gertrude decided to knit him a scarf.” The image shows it is actually a noose.

Mississippi State football coach Mike Leach had to apologize in April 2020 after tweeting a noose joke in the state that saw the most lynchings—where hanging jokes are decidedly not acceptable. He grew up Mormon in Wyoming.

In the days following the tweet, many called for Leach to be fired for the insensitivity of making a noose joke of any kind in a state that historically saw the most lynchings of Black people—with 654 known cases. Ultimately, Leach apologized for this tweet and has retained his position. However, it was not without consequence as MSU defensive tackle Fabian Lovett decided to transfer from the football team to Florida State University, due to Leach’s tweet. 

“Me and my dad didn’t feel right about what was tweeted out,” Lovett told Noles247. “We just didn’t feel comfortable playing under somebody that would do that.”

The Florida State Seminoles, of course, have racist naming and mascot problems of its own.

Days after Hill’s tweet, on June 25, Leach joined 45 other coaches from eight NCAA-affiliated Mississippi universities to go to Jackson to lobby the state Legislature to change the flag. “A flag should unify its people … this one doesn’t, so change it,” Leach said at the Capitol.

Better yet, the coach is willing to participate in dialogue about racism and inclusion beyond symbolism. “Leach has agreed to sit with us (the NAACP) and really talk about diversity,” Haddix said. She added that she feels very optimistic about the progress possible across the state with honest dialogues and efforts to both confront problematic symbolism and then go deeper into solutions.

Confronting the Truth About Racism

Starkville and Mississippi State helped lead the way to changing the state flag, and many are not willing to stop there. Two days after Hill’s tweet, the university announced that a “new community partnership will address racism and reconciliation.” This collaboration will include members of the city government, local state representatives, community leaders and organizers, a diverse group of citizens and Mississippi State University leadership.

Pastor Stone’s Starkville Stand Up is one of the collaborators. He said he is optimistic about the outlook those involved are taking. The community partnership, which featured various community groups, Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill, MSU President Keenum, District Attorney Colom and State Sen. Angela Turner-Ford, among others, held its inaugural press conference on July 16 at downtown Starkville’s Unity Park, which displays photos of civil-rights and racial-reconcilation heroes Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer and former Gov. William Winter.

Mississippi State head football coach Mike Leach
Mississippi State Head Football Coach Mike Leach helped lobby the state Legislature to change the Mississippi flag after football star Kylin Hill’s tweet. Leach has also agreed to participate in community anti-racism dialogue. Photo: Mississippi State University

At the event, President Keenum, a Starkville native, noted that Mississippi State “has a strong stake in being a partner in the efforts to seek answers to these historically difficult challenges. 

“MSU strives daily to be a nurturing, welcoming, and equitable environment for learning, research, and service to our community, state and nation,” the 19th MSU president continued. “… There is valuable, important work to be done on the vital issue of racial reconciliation, and I’m committed to putting my shoulder to the wheel of crafting and implementing meaningful solutions.”

Stone said the partnership will feature a multi-year plan that aims to place Starkville “ahead of the curve.” The first year of the plan will involve the partnership researching “city, university and public-school policies” and making solution recommendations for the “problems that they see.” 

One of the first steps Stone believes this partnership will take is leading an effort to alter the curriculum in Starkville Public Schools to educate students “on the truth about racism in this country” in a state where even the Civil Rights Movement has often, and intentionally, been left out of school curriculum. He expects community forums that will include “those tough conversations about race.”

Susan M. Glisson
Dr. Susan Glisson, who helped organize the multiracial Philadelphia Coalition in Neshoba County to call for justice for the 1964 KKK murders of three civil-rights workers, says inadequate and often false textbooks help keep racism in place in Mississippi. Courtesy Susan Glisson

Dr. Susan Glisson, a historian and founding director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, which was originally on the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford, told the Mississippi Free Press that challenges arise in teaching civil rights in the state’s public schools because of the historic local control of curriculum. This means that whether or not a school district chooses to teach a rigorous history of civil rights and racism is entirely dependent on the superintendent, principals and sometimes even teachers, not to mention the influence of the school board.

Glisson, now a partner in Sustainable Equity, a healing and equity consulting firm based in Oxford, notes that national and state aptitude tests largely dictate the teaching content of most Mississippi schools. Currently, those tests rarely cover civil and human rights, and therefore many of the state’s school districts have “not been motivated” to dedicate large amounts of time to them. “(Teacher) evaluations and school funding are tied to what scores kids get on those tests,” she said.

In 2006, Glisson attempted to change the way Mississippi schools had long been teaching the state’s race history, when she spearheaded the passage of Senate Bill 2718, “which mandated the teaching of civil rights and human rights in all Mississippi classrooms.” The bill ultimately passed and was signed into law; however, it has not had its desired effect, she said. The law received no state funding, partly due to the Mississippi’s strict and contentious education budget, and the Senate changed the wording of the bill from Mississippi schools “shall teach civil and human rights history” to Mississippi schools “may teach” that material. 

To Glisson, changing the wording made a world of difference in ensuring that the law would not live up to its full potential. Over a decade later, Mississippi schools are still not mandated to teach accurate civil- and human-rights content, and the level of education students get on these subjects is entirely dependent on the makeup of the curriculum at individual schools. 

Pastor Stone knows impactful anti-racism education will take time; the real work will begin in years two to four, he said, when the partnership and the City of Starkville will look to implement policies to repair racist systems in the community. But he’s ready for it to get started to reverse decades of miseducation on the subject.

Much of that intentional miseducation, in fact, originated with leaders of the university, back when it was still called Mississippi A&M.

State’s Confederate Namesakes Disenfranchised Black Voters

Mississippi State’s arch-rival in Oxford has long been plagued with controversy over its gradual rejection of blatant symbols of the Confederacy. Currently, faculty and students are speaking out over how the University of Mississippi moved its rebel-soldier statue to a Confederate cemetery on the edge of campus, insisting that it not turn the space into a shrine to the “lost cause.” 

UM has engaged in extensive conversations in recent years about the need to contextualize symbols of white supremacy on campus including buildings named for blatantly racist and slave-holding leaders such as former Gov. James K. Vardaman and U.S. Sens. L.Q.C. Lamar and James Z. George.

Meantime, Mississippi State has its own statue problem right in the center of the land-grant university’s campus that has drawn far less attention. A bust of MSU’s first president who helped found the university, South Carolina native Stephen Dill Lee, sits on a pedestal in the center of the Drill Field, which students crisscross constantly on the way to classes, the library and the student union. Lee Hall, a nearby administrative and classroom building dating back to 1909, is named for him, as is Lee Boulevard, a major thoroughfare on campus.

Stephen D. Lee bust at Mississippi State University
Mississippi State students walk past the bust of Stephen Dill Lee daily without knowing the extent of his efforts at instilling white supremacy into Mississippi long past the Civil War. He sits in front of recently renovated Lee Hall, right off Lee Boulevard. Photo by Donna Ladd

The university proudly displays Lee’s name and likeness in promotional materials, and it and mentions Lee Hall as a historic building on the school’s self-guided tour, but without further contextualization of its namesake’s history. Additionally, the university attaches Lee’s name to some of their highest honors. Currently, MSU students who achieve a cumulative 4.0 GPA are distinguished as Stephen D. Lee Scholars at graduation. The Stephen D. Lee Society was set up as a Mississippi State high-level donor club in 1990 for MSU supporters who donate between $500,000 to $999,000. 

The West Point graduate’s bust on the Drill Field mentions that Lee was a “lieutenant colonel CSA”—the Confederate States of America. The Mississippi Encyclopedia provides Lee’s military highlights: after fighting for the U.S. in Florida’s Third Seminole War over Native lands and then in the clashes over slavery along the Kansas-Missouri border, Lee returned to South Carolina to enlist for the Confederacy after the South seceded from the U.S. over the right to maintain and extend slavery. Southern leaders, in fact, codified into its new constitution that slavery would never be interfered with in its separate Confederate country.

Stephen D. Lee
Stephen D. Lee, the youngest lieutenant colonel in the Confederacy, was in his late 20s when the war, leaving him decades to work to rewrite the history for future generations. He succeeded. Photo: Public Domain

As the young aide-de-camp to Confederate Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard, it was Lee who delivered the ultimatum to Union Major Robert Anderson demanding that the U.S. evacuate from Fort Sumter, S.C., after the South had left the United States. After the U.S. refused to leave its federal facility, Lee cleared South Carolina Confederate soldiers to fire on the base, starting the Civil War.

Rising through the officer ranks, Lee commanded the rebel forces that defeated William Sherman in late 1862 north of Vicksburg. He also commanded Alabama troops during the siege of Vicksburg, but Gen. John Pemberton surrendered to U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863 (leading to white Vicksburg’s refusal to officially celebrate U.S. Independence Day for some 80 years).

By June 1864, Lee had become the youngest Confederate lieutenant general. 

After the war, Lee married Regina Harrison of Columbus, Miss. They bought an antebellum home called “Hickory Sticks” on a hilltop in Columbus, and also moved to the 270-acre Devereaux plantation her grandfather, Major Thomas Garton Blewett, gave them in nearby Noxubee County, as historian Herman M. Hattaway wrote in his 1969 thesis about Lee, then later in journal articles and a somewhat sympathetic biography. They then bought 500 more acres, enlarging the plantation.

As Reconstruction got underway in Mississippi, Lee was only in his late 20s and, unlike many of the South’s Confederate leaders, had a lot of energy and years left in him to help turn back gains African Americans made due to emancipation and then Reconstruction. Black Mississippians had gained the right to vote, own property, free movement and other steps toward being treated like they were “created equal” to white people—until men like Stephen D. Lee started working to reverse those gains.

‘Disfranchising’ Black Voters, ‘Grandfathering’ White Ones

By the time Lee became a Mississippi planter, slavery had officially ended, and it was hard for Lee to make the Noxubee plantation continue to succeed without the free labor from Major Blewett’s large cadre of slaves before emancipation.

“It is a fact known to those best acquainted with the Negro race since the war, that more and more of them are becoming idle, and are not giving us the good work as they used to do,” Lee said about his Black workers, as quoted in “The Southern South,” a 1920 book by Albert B. Hart.

Lee soon returned his attention to the public arena, serving briefly as a state senator and helping to found Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College for white men in nearby Starkville, becoming its first president. He oversaw MSU’s construction and operations from 1880 to 1899. 

While heading the college, the popular Confederate veteran was also Oktibbeha County’s delegate to the convention in Jackson that wrote the “disfranchising” 1890 Mississippi Constitution codifying racism into post-Reconstruction Mississippi and reversing Black gains since the Civil War. Lee helped a major architect of the newest Mississippi Plan, James Zachariah George, a Georgia native, signer of Mississippi’s Ordinance of Secession, Confederate officer and wealthy attorney who grew up in Noxubee County, then settled in Carroll County. George was known as Mississippi’s “Great Commoner.”

James Z. George
James Zachariah George probably did more to keep Black people from voting than anyone else, but buildings are still named for him at Mississippi State and the University of Mississippi, and a majority-Black  public school in Carroll County. Photo: Public Domain

Redeemers” like Lee and George were key to the former Confederacy’s successful efforts to “redeem” the South from Reconstruction efforts to bring more equality to freedmen, as well as the threat to white supremacy and power that the loss of the Civil War posed.

U.S. Sen. J.Z. George, who served on Lee’s Board of Trustees at Mississippi A&M, oversaw the “Second Mississippi Plan” to use the 1890 constitution to counter the electoral disadvantage that the white Mississippi minority had then—they had to keep Black people from voting.

“It is the manifest intention of this Convention to secure to the State of Mississippi ‘white supremacy,’” the official 1890 constitutional record stated.

George’s plan disenfranchised Black voters with onerous poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements and by disarming Black Mississippians, even as roving white “rifle clubs” like the infamous Red Shirts had formed to intimidate them away from voting polls, a key strategy of the First Mississippi Plan in 1875. Then, white Mississippians had expressly embraced violence to limit Black electoral power, resulting in the Clinton, Miss., massacre and riot in 1875, for instance. 

J.Z. George included an “understanding clause” for the voting tests to ensure that illiterate white voters could register if the white registrar decided they understood a constitutional passage. He also allowed registrars to “grandfather” voters who descended from men eligible to vote in 1867. That meant white people, of course. (The phrase “grandfathering” originated with such clauses to limit Black voting.)

MSU Building Named for Man who ‘Disfranchised’ Black Voters

George Hall, which still sits across Lee Boulevard from Lee Hall and the Mississippi State student union is named for James Z. George. An engraved placard near the door of the old infirmary—also a temporary morgue for students during the Pandemic of 1918—mentions in a hard-to-read, old-style font that George was responsible for the “suffrage clauses” of the 1890 Mississippi constitution. Those clauses, in fact, took away suffrage rights from African Americans—a fact George successfully defended before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even so, today the U.S. Capitol has a contentious statue of J.Z. George in its Statuary Hall, and Mississippi’s George County in southeast Mississippi bears his name. The University of Mississippi in Oxford, where George was also on the board of trustees, has a building named for him. And the majority-Black public high school in North Carrollton, Miss., is named after George, who is buried nearby. (In Columbus, a public school that opened in 1919 was named after Stephen D. Lee until it finally closed its doors in 2010; “Generals” was the mascot name.)

J. Z. George High School
The public school in North Carrollton is named for James Z. George, who wrote the anti-suffrage provisions in the 1890 Mississippi Constitution to keep Black people from voting. He practiced law and is buried nearby in Carroll County, which still flies the full Confederate flag in front of its rebel-soldier statue on its courthouse lawn. Today his namesake school there is about 56% African American, and the nearby Carroll Academy is still all-white, USASchoolInfo.com reports. Photo by Donna Ladd

UM, however, has been more or less public about its contentious efforts to address and contextualize numerous buildings named for activist white supremacists, if not a subcommittee planning upgrades to its Confederate cemetery. There was disagreement in 2017, in fact, between some members of UM’s Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context over how straightforward to be in contextualization language for its George Hall, considering the namesake’s brutal history.

Committee Chairman John Neff, a now-deceased UM historian, rejected softening the language in an email to committee members explaining the distinction between using the words “concerned” and “alarmed,” much as Susan Glisson points out the difference between “shall” and “may” in the teaching of civil rights in Mississippi schools.

“Although well meaning, the changes do not reflect the motives or actions (or consequences) of James Z. George,” Neff wrote the committee. “George and others were not concerned about the reality of a white electoral minority in many Mississippi counties. They were alarmed. The previous methods of voter intimidation would not be sufficient to control future electoral outcomes. By 1890, George understood that the previous era of violence could not be continued without serious national repercussions. Changes to state law, however, were not permanent and subject to legal challenge. George knew the changes needed to be vested in the state’s constitution.”

The “disfranchising” had to happen before the next election cycle, Neff added, continuing, “The haste with which George returns to Mississippi from the Senate, calls for a constitutional convention and has a new constitution written, amply justifies the use of ‘alarmed.’ George and his cronies were not ‘concerned’ that black voters constituted numbers sufficient to control the outcome of elections; they were ‘alarmed,’ and acted accordingly.”

The U.S. Capitol has a contentious statue of James Z. George in its Statuary Hall, which Congressman Bennie Thompson and others are trying to move due to his racist past and disenfranchisement of Black voters in the 1890 Mississippi Constitution. Photo: Architect of the Capitol

George’s plan worked brilliantly well into the 1960s, with vestiges of it still haunting the Mississippi Constitution and state elections to limit Black electoral power today.

MSU Chief Communications Officer Sid Salter provided a statement to the Mississippi Free Press last week when approached about plans for Confederate iconography and tributes there, indicating possible conversations about them at some later time. “As with most other university campuses across the South, there are serious questions regarding monuments, building names and other issues. As with the former state flag, our intentions are to again discuss with and seek guidance from our students, faculty and staff, and alumni,” he wrote.

Salter indicated that now is not the right time to follow the lead of many institutions across the U.S. and have those discussions, however, due to the “daunting challenge” of bringing students safely back to campus during the pandemic.

Not everyone agrees, with a Change.org petition going up several weeks ago calling for removal of the Lee bust, to scant media attention.

The MSU spokesman pointed to the university’s role in changing the state flag as a point of pride. “Our role in that effort was reflective of our shared governance model, in which we seek and receive guidance from our students, faculty and staff, and alumni,” Salter wrote on July 20.

Stephen D. Lee Never Hid His Virulent Racism

Specificity is the difference, however, between tributes to real men who worked against equality and the anonymous marble Confederate soldiers dotting courthouse lawns and even the Mississippi flag that officially came down earlier this month. The continued centering of MSU’s Lee statue and buildings named for him and J.Z. George are tributes to real people whose actions directly and intentionally hurt Black Mississippians for generations, even as their history has not stopped the university from using Lee’s name for 4.0 scholars of all races and a donors’ club started in 1990.

And those tributes still exist with little effort to contextualize and consistently teach what those men contributed to racism and race mythology.

Lee Hall, first opened in 1909, recently underwent a major renovation. Next to the student union, the Drill Field and across the street from George Hall, it is prime real estate. It houses classes, administrative offices and President Mark Keenum’s office. Photo by Donna Ladd

MSU English Professor Ted Atkinson, whose office and classes are based in Lee Hall, has worked to educate students and faculty on the history and significance of the monuments to Lee, even preparing a Powerpoint on the first MSU president’s problematic past, called “Memorializing Lee,” which he shared upon learning that the Mississippi Free Press was excavating the pasts of Lee and George. 

Told about Salter’s statement, Atkinson said he is “glad to see that the university is willing to seek guidance on the issue from faculty, staff and students in particular.”

This discussion is important, Atkinson added, even in the midst of the chaos surrounding the reopening of schools during the COVID pandemic, “because these various sites on campus that are honoring figures who dedicated themselves to the cause of the Confederacy, and later the ‘lost cause,’ stand in contrast to the atmosphere of inclusion and diversity that Mississippi State promises as the ‘people’s university.’”

Many students have graduated from MSU, including the co-author of this story, without ever knowing Lee’s disturbing history even after seeing his name on campus daily.

But  S.D. Lee never hid his virulent racism. “The question of white supremacy is no issue. That battle has been fought some time ago and won, that the white people should rule, not this State alone but the whole South,” he said in a speech at the Columbus courthouse 25 miles from Mississippi State’s Lee Hall, as quoted in Hattaway’s 1969 thesis.

‘The Ku Klux Klan Riding Past, Mysterious, Silent and White’

Hattaway discovered that Lee’s son, Blewett Harrison Lee, said in a 1927 speech that his wealthy father brought him to their plantation gate “so that I might see the long procession of the Ku Klux Klan riding past, mysterious, silent and white.” The son confirmed that his father had participated “in the patrol of the roads through the dark hours” to help avoid “reenactments upon the prairies of Mississippi of the terrible deeds done during the race insurrection on the island of San Domingo.”

Throughout the 19th century into the early 20th, white Americans would often refer to the Haiti revolution (1709-1804) against French rule, leaving many of the white colonists dead, as reasons for violent and unconscionable methods to supposedly prevent uprisings first among slaves and then freedmen after emancipation. They used paranoid language not unlike what some are employing today as a scare tactic against Black Lives Matter protests, which are usually peaceful.

In his thesis, Hattaway concluded that Lee’s participation in night patrols probably did not mean he “joined in terrorizing activities against Negroes” due to his “character” and “other known actions.” He added a both-sides caveat: “More likely (Lee and his companions) feared outbreaks of violence—perhaps by whites and Negroes both—and they took steps to prevent such occurrences.” 

The “First Mississippi Plan of 1875” was a strategy by white Mississippians to prevent Black people, who were the majority then, from voting or coming together to discuss political strategy. The strategy used violence and terrorism by the “Red Shirts” and other white “patrol” mobs. After 2,000 Black Mississippians gathered in Clinton, terrorists massacred dozens in upcoming weeks. Photo courtesy Missy Jones

However, Lee’s only child was 8 when white Mississippi men carried out the first Mississippi Plan in 1875 to terrorize Black people away from voting and political organization, which led to the Clinton massacre just outside the capital city, as well as other deaths around the state. It was an effort to build on earlier Black Codes that the Mississippi Legislature had first passed in November 1865, with oppressive laws against vagrancy, idleness, disorder, “insulting” gestures, owning guns or preaching the gospel without licenses. The Codes mandated that Black children had to work for white planters as apprentices, and the state’s penal codes just substituted the word “slave” with “freedmen,” leaving the same onerous criminal laws in place that had governed enslaved people.

When S.D. Lee later served in the Mississippi Senate, Hattaway wrote, he pushed for women’s suffrage—saying that women would help “purify” politics and “are our equals intellectually.” Ultimately, though, Hattaway reported Lee’s logic as the need for more white voters, the same concern that drove George’s 1890 Constitution’s “suffrage” clauses. In Oktibbeha County, in the 1880s, Black population had increased by 2,630 with only 650 additional whites. 

The math worried white supremacists like Lee. “We must retain our representation in Congress and the electoral college,” he reasoned in 1890 for women’s suffrage, as Hattaway quoted in his thesis. “We either submit to negro rule, adopt the shotgun policy or change our franchise laws.” The latter two options kept most Black Mississippians from voting until the 1960s.

The constitutional delegates did not agree with franchising white women, but they disenfranchised Black voters with zeal. But delegate Lee’s work to maintain and extend white supremacy and racist mythology was just beginning. He had his eye on schools and textbooks that, as a result, would miseducate southern and even many northern youth about the horrors of slavery and obscure the real reasons why the South had started what southern Confederates called, at best, the “War Between the States.”

All the while, Lee and his Confederate brethren claimed they were working to bring “reconciliation” to the north and the south, if not to Black Americans. The effect of that movement was that white people in the North and the South worked together in what historian and Pulitzer Prize winner David W. Blight calls a “reconciliationist” narrative. That approach helped former Confederates and slave owners turn the nation’s attention away from racial equality and instead push an altered vision of their own atrocities that focused on bringing the nation back together over teaching younger generations their “facts” of what really happened.

Targeting History Books Not Kind Enough to the White South

It was Stephen D. Lee’s leadership and activities in the early 20th century that had a direct impact on what generations of Mississippians would and would not learn about what pro-Confederacy journalist Edward A. Pollard dubbed the “lost cause” of the Confederacy. Lee’s work directly created the problems in school and college textbooks and curricula that Dr. Susan Glisson and others have fought to correct in recent decades, with limited success, so that young Mississippians could learn the state’s full history that Lee helped hide for generations to come.

The United Confederate Veterans formed in New Orleans in 1889, pulling nine groups of Confederate veterans under one umbrella while promising to be a social and assistance organization, lobbying Congress for veterans’ pensions, doing cemetery upkeep and statue dedications. By the second national reunion in Jackson, Miss., in 1891, the group had 36 “camps,” later peaking with 1,555 by 1898.

Hattaway writes that, unlike U.S. veterans groups up north, the UCV quickly became more concerned with symbology and “accurate history” about the Confederacy, including downplaying slavery, than with assistance for former soldiers, especially from the top tier of Confederate officers like college president Lee, who had few financial worries. 

Two-time Louisiana State University President James W. Nicholson, a former Confederate sergeant, served on the UCV’s Historical Committee with Stephen D. Lee. He also wrote romantic books about the Confederacy. Today the Department of Physics and Astronomy is in James W. Nicholson Hall at LSU.

Lee was central to the recasting of Confederate history, Hattaway wrote, and became an early chairman of the UCV’s Historical Committee (taking over after the first chairman died). UCV formed the committee in 1892 for “elucidation and vindication” of “the Confederate struggle” and to “select and designate such proper and truthful history of the United States, to be used in both public and private schools of the South.” It also promised to condemn history books that were not kind enough to the white South. UCV’s pressure would get teachers and professors fired and blacklisted for not teaching the revisionist history it demanded.

Along with Lee on the committee was Louisiana State University President James W. Nicholson, a mathematics professor and author of about a dozen textbooks, as well as romantic “Stories of Dixie” about serving in the “War for Southern Independence,” as many Confederate sympathizers still call the Civil War. The first Tulane University president, William Preston Johnston, helped Lee and Nicholson as well as other distinguished academics.

Under Lee’s leadership, the committee released a long report at the 1894 UCV reunion in Birmingham, Ala.the same year the Mississippi Legislature chose the state flag that just came down—calling for the Confederate record to be set straight, to their minds, on slavery, secession, nullification and state sovereignty.

Textbooks must teach, the men decided, “that the Southern people were motivated only by a desire for independence and self-government,” did not commit a crime by seceding; the whole country was responsible for slavery; and that the war was a “conflict between the states,” not a “rebellion” by the secessionist South.

The Baltimore Morning Herald (in a previously slave-holding state that did not secede) reported that more than 30,000 celebrants were there to hear Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee present the history recommendations, which it summarized: “The histories that have been written by Northern historians have naturally been biased. It is recommended that data be gathered for a correct Southern history, and that the legislatures of Southern States and authorities of schools be urged to adopt the book for use in the schools.” 

(The news report ended: “Tonight, a tableau of states, in which the prettiest young unmarried woman from each Southern state will participate, will be represented at the wigwam.”)

The UCV also objected to the accurate teaching of Confederate atrocities such as Major Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s massacre of 300 Black U.S. soldiers at Fort Pillow in Tennessee. In the same state, former slave trader Forrest helped found the Ku Klux Klan, and became its first grand wizard, in Pulaski, Tenn., after the war. (The University of Southern Mississippi is in a county named for Forrest.)

Nathan Bedford Forrest
Former slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest helped found the Ku Klux Klan, and became its first grand wizard, in Pulaski, Tenn., after the Civil War. The United Confederate Veterans downplayed the Fort Pillow massacre of Black soldiers, which Forrest led. Photo: Public Domain 

The UCV Historical Committee demanded a revisionist and circular narrative that pushed the South’s central issue of slavery aside: “[T]he true cause of the war between the States was the dignified withdrawal of the Southern States from the Union, to avoid the continued breaches of domestic tranquility, guaranteed but not consummated by the constitution.” 

Lee’s committee identified three types of existing textbooks that had to go. The only acceptable books were written in the South by southerners and took a romantic vision of the Confederacy. Lee’s committee recommendations would target universities as well, as the plan went into place to pressure lawmakers, education officials, teachers’ associations, and publishing houses from Virginia to Texas to accept books UCV recommended while rejecting those with “a lack of catholic sympathy for all sections of the country,” Hattaway wrote, quoting the South Atlantic Quarterly.

UCV under Lee condemned the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entries on the former Confederacy as being “from ignorance or malignity” for saying the South’s economic system had been based on “the extorted natural wages of the black labourer” and that the South wanted “revolution or nothing” when it declared war on the United States.

By the late 1890s, with the dawning of the Spanish-American War, the mood of the country was becoming more nationalistic and started shifting toward shared beliefs that both sides were right in the Civil War, leading to the “cult of Lincoln and Lee” and making UCV’s quest to rework the past easier, Hattaway wrote in his thesis, adding that many Union veterans were not pleased with the shift toward sympathy for the South. 

Lee’s committee reported in 1898 that the “renaissance of history” about the South “was in some degree fulfilled.” But UCV still formed a subcommittee with three members from each southern state to monitor pro-Confederacy content in state textbooks for all schools. 

The local Stephen D. Lee Chapter No. 34 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy raised $5,000 to erect a triple-soldier Confederate statue in front of the Columbus, Miss., courthouse, on Aug. 9, 1912, which was unveiled to a festive crowd by 17 children. Photo: Newspapers.com

In 1904 Lee was named commander-in-chief of the United Confederate Veterans, which would work closely with the  United Daughters of the Confederacy and soon the Sons of Confederate Veterans—who still gets the Mississippi governor to declare Confederate Heritage Month each April—to erect rebel statues throughout the South. The memorials, Lee liked to tell audiences, “preserve and defend the record of your forefathers.” It’s said that Lee’s UCV gavel was made of wood from Fort Sumter.

Lee would go on to head the Mississippi Historical Society and serve on the board of trustees of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

As an expert in southern studies and literature, MSU’s Dr. Atkinson notes that Lee “was a major figure in the movement to erect monuments, the very monuments that are at the heart of the controversy today” in Mississippi and across the U.S.

That included the triple-soldier Confederate statue in front of the Columbus, Miss., courthouse, dedicated on Aug. 9, 1912, and unveiled by 17 children, costing the local Stephen D. Lee UDC Chapter No. 34 $5,000 for the statue. That UDC chapter still exists, with the women holding reunions in Friendship Cemetery near the graves of the Lees, featuring a second bust like the one on the MSU Drill Field in nearby Starkville.

The Columbus statue, incidentally, looks like a Klansman from a certain angle, which may be a coincidence.

A separate Starkville chapter of the UDC, the Regina Harrison Lee chapter, was named for Lee’s wife, who Hattaway reported was a UDC president for a period. The “Regina chapter” was active until at least 1970, newspaper archives show.

‘The Premise of Man’s Innate Inequality’

Stephen D. Lee’s work to censor textbooks and classrooms was a resounding success—and it went further than false equivalency of the two sides of the Civil War and why they fought. It was openly about embedding white supremacy into the historic ethos of the United States.

Historian Fred Arthur Bailey opened his 1991 Georgia Historical Quarterly piece, “The Textbooks of the Lost Cause: Censorship and the Creation of Southern State Histories,” with Lee issuing a warning to the Houston, Texas, UCV assembly in 1895. Without their efforts to revise the Confederate narrative, “the record of history will contain many errors and false indictments against the South which have originated with northern writers,” Lee warned.

Lee believed his overtly revisionist crusade was necessary for the sake of “our children and the world,” as the college president put it. He also declared he did not condone censorship, even as the UCV, the daughters (UDC) and the sons (SCV) were blanketing the South with campaigns to indeed censor textbooks and fire professors and teachers who refused to reconcile “both sides” of the Civil War equally, historian Bailey wrote.

Still, the Mississippi A&M president added in Charleston, S.C, in 1899, “we do strongly recommend that the influence of this Association be exerted in banishing from the schools any books which teach false lessons, either of fact or sentiment.”

Lee, the UCV and friends targeted any textbooks or lessons that told the now-verifiable truth about Confederate motives, slavery and white supremacy, including their beliefs in “the premise of man’s innate inequality,” as historian Bailey explained the root belief of white supremacy. That is, the belief that white people are born biologically and intellectually superior, a widely held belief across the United States at the time. This was the same scientific-racist notion that Dylann Roof wrote into his manifesto before walking into a historic Black church in S.D. Lee’s hometown of Charleston, S.C., on  June 17, 2015, and killing nine worshipers inside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church with his Glock handgun. Roof believed Black people were inherently unequal to white people, as his writings showed.

Dylann Roof
Confederate veterans like Stephen D. Lee believed in the innate inferiority of Black people, historians and Lee’s own words say—as did Dylann Roof (pictured), who massacred worshipers in Lee’s hometown of Charleston, S.C., decades after the UCV leader’s death. Photo: lastrhodesian.com

First, Bailey explained, Lee and Confederate compatriots waged a two-stage crusade to alter history: lobbying to expel historical texts written in the north and by writing and publishing their own books and materials. “Although they clothed these efforts in an appeal for national, or nonsectional history,” the historian writes, “they in fact developed blatant apologies praising antebellum southern culture, justifying the Confederate cause, and perpetuating the aristocratic ethos into the 20th century.”

To Lee, it was vital to deny the truth that the Confederacy formed to counter growing abolitionist efforts to end slavery even as southern states were passing anti-manumission laws to outlaw freeing slaves, as Mississippi did in 1857. Lee insisted that all textbooks and teachings instead stress that secession was a dignified, justified approach to preserve their constitutional rights—not a treasonous rebellion to protect and expand slavery. 

In fact, the “preserving the Constitution” argument is engraved on many Confederate statues that the UCV, UDC and SCV put up during the same time they were monitoring and censoring textbooks and classrooms. The censorship worked exhaustively, Bailey writes, detailing victories in state after state that injected a new idyllic narrative about the Confederacy that has prevailed, in many ways, to the present.

Rewriting the History and Horrors of Slavery

Many textbooks did not stop at both-sidesing the U.S. and the Confederate rebellion; the UCV, UDC and SCV together rewrote the history of slavery itself, Bailey wrote. Their narrative turned slave owners into paternalistic saviors of inferior Black people and taught that Reconstruction—the only time that Mississippi has ever elected a Black official in a statewide vote  with 226 Black officials total—was devastating. A North Carolina textbook declared that while slave masters were sometimes cruel, “for the most part, he was kind and lenient to them. They in turn loved their master.”

Lee-approved textbooks did not condemn the innate cruelty of slavery itself, either.

“To buttress the histories’ aristocratic themes,” Bailey wrote, “slavery became a paternalistic institution in which caring masters protected and even catered to the needs of a docile race of childlike laborers.” To hear these revisionists tell it, the carpetbaggers “spoiled the Negro” during Reconstruction, injecting “cruelty and violence” into the Black race, as the historian explained.

Mary Tucker Magill
Confederate sympathizer Mary Tucker Magill wrote a textbook for Virginia students that called Africans “can-ni-bals, or man-eaters, and very degraded in every way,” claiming falsely that U.S. slavery saved Black people. Photo: Public Domain

Lee and company’s campaign led to horrendous dehumanization in history texts. In her 1908 textbook, “Magill’s First Book in Virginia History,Mary Tucker Magill wrote this revisionist take on U.S. slavery: “Many years before the Revolution, slaves had been brought to America, and the English Government made so much money by capturing Africans and selling them in America, that they insisted that it was right. Virginia never liked it, and remonstrated with England; but it did no good, and all the colonies had slaves.”

Magill, by the way, was a strong Confederate sympathizer in the state that headquartered the new southern government, and maybe even a spy, before later helping rewrite history that unsuspecting children would absorb.

In fact, she planted a lie that many white people still repeat today as if it’s gospel—that slavery saved people stolen from uncivilized African nations. “In their own country they were can-ni-bals, or man-eaters, and very degraded in every way. They were much better off in this country, where they were taught to know about God and about other things which were good for them,” Magill wrote in her Virginia textbook.

Magill did not, however, mention practices like white masters hobbling Black people so they could not escape or as punishment, or the systemic white rape of enslaved women, which was the legal right of slave owners.

Revisionist historians warned about dangerous Black mobs, even as white ones operated with impunity, and a Tennessee textbook only referred to slavery by lying that Jamestown colonists had, in fact, rescued 20 Black people in 1619 from a Dutch ship. “The Africans found homes and friends and hailed their entrance into slavery with joy,” southern historians William R. Garrett and Albert V. Goodpasture wrote in their Tennessee history textbook.

Glorifying ‘Fine Men’ of the Klan, Downplaying Cruelty of Slavery

On the other hand, the texts Stephen D. Lee and company pushed glorified members of the racist Ku Klux Klan, the Order of the Pale Faces and the highly secret Knights of the White Camellia, formed by Confederate Col. Alcibiades DeBlanc in 1867, patrolled Black people, perhaps as Lee’s son remembered his his papa going off to do. Southern historians referred to Confederate veterans who founded those groups, such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, as the “best men” for taking “up arms against oppression,” Bailey wrote. For instance, DeBlanc would become a Louisiana Supreme Court justice 10 years after forming the terroristic Camellias explicitly to scare Black people away from the polls.

“Southern elites,” Bailey added, “created the documents by which historians have traditionally assessed the region’s past.” That included these violent white gangs.

Young white Mississippians were so inculcated with these convenient lies that older white Mississippians still say them out loud with conviction now. In Tupelo earlier last week, the Daily Journal reported that local white woman Patty Young spoke to the Lee County Board of Supervisors against relocating the Confederate statue from the old county courthouse lawn.

Slavery did not cause the Civil War, Young insisted, pointing to “northern invaders” and tariffs—two excuses groups like today’s Sons of Confederate Veterans push to skirt the slavery issue that southern declarations of secession admitted to in no uncertain terms. Mississippi even led its declaration with its reason for seceding into the Confederacy: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.”

In Tupelo, Patty Young then repeated more Stephen D. Lee-era talking points in an interview with the Tupelo newspaper. “People holler that those slaves were mistreated,” Young said. “None of us lived during that time. Those are just rumors. I really don’t think that we know the actual facts. There may have been some that were mistreated.” After all, she said, enslaved people “were given food, shelter and clothing” because “those slaves were worth a lot of money to those owners.”

Lowndes County Board of Supervisors Chairman Harry Sanders
Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders told the Columbus newspaper that slaves “didn’t have to do anything.” He added, “Whoever owned them took care of them, fed them, clothed them, worked them.” Under fire, he resigned the presidency but remains on the board. Photo: Lowndes Board of Supervisors

In June, Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders repeated talking points similar to the false beliefs Lee had helped press into textbooks generations back. And Sanders shocked the world from the town where the Lees kept their city place and he served as a deacon of the First Baptist Church. It was during a debate over moving the statue erected by the Stephen D. Lee UDC chapter there in 1912.

“They didn’t have to go out and earn any money, they didn’t have to do anything,” Sanders told The Columbus Dispatch about U.S. slaves. “Whoever owned them took care of them, fed them, clothed them, worked them.”

Sanders then dropped into “welfare-mother”-style rhetoric that President Ronald Reagan helped popularize in the 1980s. “They became dependent, and that dependency is still there,” he said.

Back in 2004, a capital-city newspaper gave a cash prize to a column by an older white man who complained about the airport being renamed for civil-rights hero Medgar Evers. Much like “can-ni-bals” historian Magill reasoned over a century ago, Dan McCullen wrote these words in the Northside Sun: “Every black in this country ought to give thanks every day that their ancestors were brought to this country where they were ultimately given every opportunity that everyone else has.”

By any measure, Lee’s campaign to rewrite the history of the Confederacy, first as chairman of the UCV Historical Committee and then as the commander-in-chief of the entire organization, was successful with the mythology often repeated today.

“Thus,” historian Bailey concluded, “20th-century southern whites absorbed a veneration for the Confederate cause, an intense resistance to black civil rights, and a deferential spirit toward their ‘proper’ leaders. Historical truth, as defined and dictated by the Confederate societies, insured that southerners would retain cultural values detrimental to the progress of their own native land.”

The Stephen D. Lee statue anchoring MSU’s Drill Field would grin at a job well done if he could. 

‘I Would Like to See Them Removed’

Mississippi State University rising senior Symone Thomas says the statue and buildings honoring old racists on campus should change.

“I would like to see them removed. If we’re trying to move forward, I think it is time to remove them,” the geoscience major, who is concentrating in broadcast meteorology, told the Mississippi Free Press. 

Mississippi State University rising senior Symone Thomas says the statue and buildings honoring old racists on campus should go. The university is trying to be more inclusive, she said, but has more work to do. At MSU, 21% of the student body and 17% of faculty are Black. Courtesy Symone Thomas

Thomas, who is active in her community and was named the 2019-2020 Miss Black, representing the Kappa Beta Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, acknowledges that the monuments to Lee have been on the campus for a long time and serve as historical markers for many. Like MSU spokesman Sid Salter, Thomas is proud of her university’s role in changing the Mississippi flag, but adds that it “cannot change one thing, if they’re not going to change another.”

Dr. Susan Glisson, who worked to modernize more truth into textbooks that Stephen D. Lee had gutted of it, also aims to educate the public about the real history of the Confederate monuments throughout the state that went up in public squares decades after the Civil War as “deliberate attempts to advertise and manifest white supremacy in every town where they are.” 

While Starkville and Mississippi State have worked together to take down the state flag and are angling toward building a community of inclusion and acceptance, the university so far has resisted efforts to address the bust of Lee in the Drill Field.

The issue came up in 2017 after the white-supremacists protests in Charlottesville, Va., with one of them driving into a crowd and killing white anti-racist activist Heather Heyer. The focus then was Lee’s role as a Confederate officer, not the profound and lasting but lesser-known miseducation of southerners he helped force into the educational establishment, however.

College President Mark Keenum showed resistance then to moving the bust of Lee in an email to the campus newspaper after the 2017 Charlottesville tragedy. “With respect to Stephen D. Lee, I will say that his bust on the Drill Field is a reminder of the work that Mississippi State’s first president did to build a new institution that looks to the future and not to the past,” Keenum told MSU students.  “It’s important to remember that President Lee was a leader of reconciliation efforts after the Civil War.”

Historian David W. Blight writes that, after the Civil War, a whitewashed “reconciliation” succeeded in bringing together the white South with the white North, taking the focus off Black Americans and the gains that should have followed emancipation, had a rewriting of history not succeeded.

Except that the record shows that Stephen D. Lee was about anything but true “reconciliation” of the races right up until his death in 1908. He, the UCV and the Daughters and Sons wanted embedded white supremacy, inaccurate textbooks and pedagogy, Black people blocked from voting and a false sense of glory for a war over slavery for decades to come.

The talk of “reconciliation” into “sectional harmony” was actual whitewashing of the Confederacy’s determination to keep slavery alive into a “‘white only’ version of the War that had been building for decades,” as historian Joan Waugh wrote in a review of David W. Blight’s work on the subject.

By 2017, MSU history professor Alison Greene had joined 30 professors from colleges across Mississippi to call for the state flag to come down. She told The Reflector for the same story then that correcting the record is vital. “I do think that historians, particularly those of us who work on U.S. and Mississippi history, have an obligation to speak to and of this history,” Greene said in 2017.

Dr. John Neff, the UM professor who led contextualization efforts at State’s rival university until his death this year, also weighed int o The Reflector in 2017, pushing back on the main excuse Confederate memorial defenders give for not removing these symbols of idolatry from public squares and drill fields. 

First, he said, college students are “absolutely affected” by such monuments. Neff explained that real history discovery is found in (honest) books and classrooms, not in a statue of a former officer or a plaque on a building that offers few actual facts. “The monuments themselves are not history,” Neff said. “They did not make history when they were put up, they will not change history if taken down.” 

‘The Vindication of the Cause for Which We Fought,’ Still

Today, Stephen D. Lee is not only memorialized and venerated by the prominent MSU building bearing his name and the current president’s office, the Drill Field bust, the boulevard, the honors society and the donors club at Mississippi State University. He is also an idol for controversial organizations such as today’s Sons of Confederate Veterans, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “neo-confederate and white national[ist].” In 2010, SPLC listed crossover membership between SCV members and officers with hate groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens (which inspired Dylann Roof) and the League of the South.

The national SCV website opens with words from a speech S.D. Lee gave at the UCV reunion on April 25, 1906, in New Orleans. His words fixate on the glory of the “cause” of the war, which all Confederate officers knew had been the right to stop all attempts to end slavery: “To you, Sons of Confederate Veterans, we will commit the vindication of the cause for which we fought. To your strength will be given the defense of the Confederate soldier’s good name, the guardianship of his history, the emulation of his virtues, the perpetuation of those principles which he loved and which you love also, and those ideals which made him glorious and which you also cherish.”

SCV officer Larry McCluney Jr. showed off his attic office in Greenwood, Miss., filled with Confederate memorabilia in 2018. That included a Civil War chess set. He decidedly does not believe the Confederates fought the war over slavery. He was elected commander-in-chief of the national SCV earlier this month. Photo by Donna Ladd

Mississippi State may have the Stephen D. Lee Society, but SCV has a Stephen Dill Lee Institute that glorifies the cause and the actions of Lee, the Confederacy and its offsprings’ societies. The institute, as SCV explains it, has very similar goals to Lee’s history committee back in his day: “to organize accomplished and distinguished professional scholarship to inform our members and the general public of the Southern side of the war.”

“To that end,” SCV continues, “the Institute makes available recognized scholars to present such subjects as states’ rights and the Constitutional aspects of the war; economic motives for invasion of the South; the dubious benevolence behind the slavery issue; Union Army war crimes and other unsavory aspects of the war against the South in 1861–1865; and other aspects of the true causes and nature of the war.”

In Biloxi, the Mississippi Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans Inc. owns and runs Beauvoir, Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ last home. After his death, the UDC and UCV turned it into a veterans home and cemetery, using state funds and donations. It is now a nonprofit museum and “presidential library,” and has routinely received $100,000 a year from the State of Mississippi, Smithsonian Magazine reported in late 2018.

And it’s not just Mississippi tax dollars helping fund today’s lost-cause mythos and memorials.  “American taxpayers are still heavily investing in these tributes today,” Smithsonian reported. “We have found that, over the past ten years, taxpayers have directed at least $40 million to Confederate monuments—statues, homes, parks, museums, libraries and cemeteries—and to Confederate heritage organizations.”

Smithsonian pointed out that it is hard to find a mention of slavery inside Beauvoir alongside all the Confederate memorabilia. But its bookstore and website sell revisionist tracts such as “The South Was Right” by James Ronald Kennedy and Walter Donald Kennedy, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls “the bible of the neo-Confederate movement.

“‘The South Was Right!’ passionately argues for a second Southern secession,” the SPLC describes. “It defends antebellum slavery, describing relations between slaves and their masters as ‘very close and mutually respectful.’ It pillories what it describes as the ‘Yankee myth of history.’” The national SCV website sells similar revisionist materials. One prominent example is “A  Confederate Catechism: The War of 1861-1865,” a pamphlet defending the South by Lyon Gardiner Tyler, the son of President John Tyler.

No. 13 on Tyler’s list is a particularly egregious twisting of facts. It claims that President Lincoln could have averted secession and the war by supporting U.S. Sen. John J. Crittenden’s proposed compromise—but it whitewashes what the Kentucky planter and slave owner’s compromise actually demanded to avoid secession.

Most disturbing, the “Crittenden Compromise” would have guaranteed that slavery would continue in slaveholding states (with no legal way to ever repeal it); forced the federal government to compensate owners whose slaves escaped; and brought back the Missouri Compromise, but moving the compromise further west to allow the expansion of slavery, which the South was set on happening.

One of the Crittenden amendments forbade future constitutional amendments from changing the other five amendments or the three-fifths compromise and fugitive slave clauses. The compromise would have also repealed northern personal liberty laws, which many northern states had passed to protect escaped slaves or free Black people from being rounded up and sent into slavery. Because Lincoln and Congress, other than the slave-obsessed South, rejected the move to ensure that slavery lasted forever, Tyler said they preferred “the slaughter of 400,000 men” and the loss of billions of dollars “to a compromise involving a mere abstraction.”

Today, SCV still sells that pamphlet on its website. Indeed, SCV members and other Confederate apologists tend to deny slavery as the reason the South seceded, formed the Confederacy and started the Civil War, often with great detail and filled with logical trapdoors (like the now national SCV leaders saying the cause of the war was simply the “firing on Fort Sumter”). True believers like the new national SCV Commander-in-chief Larry McCluney Jr. of Greenwood, Miss., point reporters t0 old revisionist Mississippi history books they still rely on, with McCluney saying in 2018 that he uses it to teach Black students in public institutions in the Mississippi Delta. 

SCV officer Larry McCluney Jr. teaches history to public-school students and at a community college in the Delta. The history text he trusts the most is from 1900—and depicts slaves as loyal to their owners until Reconstruction put ideas into their heads. Photo by Donna Ladd

But occasionally other SCV members will admit that slavery was the central issue of the Civil War, which Confederates back then had no need to hide, alongside their white supremacy. “With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law,” Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said in his “Cornerstone Speech”  in Savannah, Ga., in March 1861. “Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.”

In Mississippi, UDC newsletters show that SCV members still speak to school classes, in the gray uniform including the signature kepi (hat), to share their version of the Confederacy much as they did in Stephen D. Lee’s day, including annually to Winston Academy 5th graders in Louisville. The school opened as a whites-only segregation academy in 1969, the same year the U.S. Supreme Court forced Mississippi and other southern hold-out states to integrate, and still has miniscule diversity among its student body. Black students make up 84% of the nearby public Louisville High School population.

Louisville is slightly majority-Black, with a Confederate soldier statue adorned with a perpetual wreath in the middle of the intersection of Main Street and Columbia Avenue, which cars must drive around. The town is 29 miles from Starkville.

Directing Energy, Momentum to Exploding Myths, Changing Systems

Ted Atkinson, the MSU English professor, includes the SCV’s continued centering of Stephen D. Lee in its promotional efforts as an important red flag about lifting the first president of his university up as a forward-thinking education leader. Dr. Atkinson called the neo-Confederate embrace of Lee today “concerning.”

Starkville Stand Up
Starkville Stand Up is pulling together a diverse mix of people ready to face racism and racist history together, Pastor Joseph Stone Jr. says. It may take a while, though, he cautions. Courtesy Pastor Stone

From Oxford, Dr. Susan Glisson made it clear that removing Confederate symbols from public property is not nearly enough; what is needed instead is a deep educational dive into the racist systems and inequities the supposed heroes perpetuated and how they can be confronted and changed.

“If all we do, with all this energy and momentum, is work to take down some statues and a flag, then we will have failed our state, and we will have failed the people who are most in pain,” Glisson told the Mississippi Free Press.

In Starkville, Pastor Stone acknowledges that true and effective anti-racism education will take time, and he expects the real work to kick about two years into the current strategy. That is when the partnership, including Mississippi State and the City of Starkville, will look to implement policies to repair ingrained racist systems in the community.  But he is ready for it to get started, the Black preacher added.

In his statement to the Mississippi Free Press, MSU spokesman Sid Salter showed a realization that hard work is ahead as the university deals with “serious questions regarding monuments, building names and other issues.” 

“We are proud to be a working partner with officials from the City of Starkville, Oktibbeha County, the Starkville-Oktibbeha County School District, the Starkville Stand Up group, area legislators and area judicial officials in a forward-looking community effort committed to seeking solutions to racism and paths to meaningful racial reconciliation,” Salter said. 

“That effort will be ongoing.”

Editor’s Note: Scott Colom, interviewed for this story, was an early donor to the Mississippi Free Press. Neither he nor other donors have influence over editorial and reporting decisions.

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