‘We Cannot Go Back’: Historians Urge Lawmakers Not to ‘Politicize’ Mississippi History Board

Senator Mike Thompson shakes hands with ex-Governor Phil Bryant
Sen. Mike Thompson (left), a Harrison County Republican, introduced Senate Bill 2727, which would give power to make appointments to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History Board of Trustees to the governor and lieutenant governor. It comes after Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, called for so-called "patriotic education" reforms that would de-emphasize the role of slavery and racism in teaching American history. Trump appointed former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (right), also a Republican, to a now-defunct presidential commission on "patriotic education" late last year. Photo courtesy Sen. Mike Thompson

Mississippi’s history board should remain free from political interference, historians from across the state are telling House lawmakers, asking them to oppose Senate Bill 2727

The bill, which Mississippi senators passed on a partisan 34-14 vote earlier this month with only Republican support, would grant the governor and lieutenant governor control over appointments to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History’s nine-member board of trustees. Currently, board members nominate new additions, and the Senate approves their picks.

“Senate Bill 2727 would strip this nominating power from the Board and transfer it to the Executive Branch of the State of Mississippi. The Society of Mississippi Archivists condemns this action in the strongest possible terms and urges members of the Mississippi House of Representatives to vote ‘no’ on this action,” the Society of Mississippi Archivists said in a Feb. 18 statement.

Telling History ‘Without Concern for Political Fallout’

The organization, led by historians from across the state, harshly criticized the legislation, noting that, though the state founded the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in 1902 “to protect the ‘Southern identity’ and preserve the records of the Civil War,” it is now a revered institution that preserves history without political or partisan influence.

“Working together despite their own political differences, the Board successfully raised resources and support for a new Archives and History Building in 2003, followed by the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History in 2017, allowing Mississippi to not only be a destination for researchers, but also offering a place where difficult, controversial stories can be told by trained historians and archivists in a truthful way without concern for political fallout,” the Society of Mississippi Archivists said.

The legislation follows former President Donald J. Trump’s efforts last year to push a “patriotic education” program that would censor the teaching of negative aspects of the nation’s founding and the white men who founded it, ban the teaching of the 1619 Project and its emphasis on the role of slavery in the country’s founding, and stop schools from teaching about issues of systemic racism and injustice.

Gov. Tate Reeves stands in front of an LED video screen with an image of an American flag flapping in the wind
Gov. Tate Reeves’ proposed a “patriotic education” fund last year. Photo by Ashton Pittman

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican who would have authority to make new appointments to the MDAH board under the new bill, followed Trump’s lead, proposing a similar “patriotic education” program in Mississippi schools in a budget proposal late last year. 

Trump also appointed Reeves’ immediate Republican predecessor, ex-Gov. Phil Bryant, to a presidential committee on “patriotic education” loaded with right-wing appointees. The commission issued a report in January that offered a revisionist plan for teaching American history, complete with fictions about key historical figures, including Martin Luther King Jr. 

When he took office, President Joe Biden dismantled the commission and removed its report from the official White House website. 

Earlier in the legislative session, Sen. Angela Burks Hill of Picayune introduced the so-called, “Saving American History in Mississippi Schools Act of 2020.” That bill declared the 1619 Project “racially divisive and revisionist,” claiming that it “threatens the integrity of the Union by denying the true principles on which (the nation) was founded.”

“The State of Mississippi has a strong interest in promoting an accurate account of the Nation’s history through public schools and forming young people into knowledgeable and patriotic citizens,” read the bill, which would have punished any K-12 schools that teach the 1619 Project by revoking state funds.

Sen. Hill’s bill died in committee earlier this month, but historians fear that S.B. 2727, which the House may soon consider, could present a longer-term threat of political interference no matter which elected officials hold office.

‘The Museum Refuses to Sugarcoat History’

In a letter to House members this morning, 46 historians from colleges and universities across the state joined calls for legislators to oppose the bill.

“We greatly appreciate your past support of the Department of Archives and History. … You were instrumental in facilitating the creation of the Two Mississippi Museums. You trusted the Department to choreograph the changing of Mississippi’s flag, one of the most sensitive political moments in each of your public careers,” the historians wrote in today’s letter. “Your trust in the Department and its Board of Trustees has been noticed and appreciated, and has been rewarded by the Department’s able guiding of these historic moments.

“As you reach the end of the legislative session, we are asking that you not interfere with the independence of an entity that has done so much good work for our state. To improve this invaluable Department, what is needed is an increase in funding. Please do not politicize its Board of Trustees.”

Reuben Anderson, the MDAH board president, became the first Black Mississippi Supreme Court Justice in 1985. In 2020, he led the commission to choose a new state flag. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

In its Feb. 18 statement, the Society of Mississippi Archivists noted that, when the Two Mississippi museums opened in 2017, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter “was especially struck by the brutally honest approach to Mississippi that the Museum’s curators took, explaining that ‘to a startling degree, and despite being a state sponsored institution, the museum refuses to sugarcoat history.’”

“We are also a state that just took a very small step out of this dark, racist past by finally changing the state flag in June 2020, in large part due to the potential major loss of revenue and financial support from entities like the NCAA and other organizations who threatened to pull events and funding from the state,” the Society’s statement continues, referring to sports organizations’ ultimatums to the state last summer over its continued use of a state flag that contained a Confederate symbol in its canton.

Gov. Reeves signed the bill changing the state flag amid broad bipartisan support. Before then, though, he said he opposed changing it legislatively during his 2019 campaign and, months earlier, declared April 2020 “Confederate Heritage Month” on behalf of the Sons of Confederate Veterans—a tradition his predecessors had also indulged.

As lieutenant governor, Reeves spoke to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Vicksburg in 2013 in front of a massive Confederate banner, with cotton arrangements on either side of his podium.

Sen. Mike Thompson of Long Beach, who introduced the bill to grant the executive branch authority over MDAH appointments, supported last year’s bill to retire the old state flag.

“I ran for office campaigning on a platform of working hard to get Mississippi off the bottom of the list. We know how great of a State we are, and we all want to provide an even greater State for our children,” he wrote in a Facebook post, explaining his vote to critical Harrison County constituents

“I sincerely hope the current State flag can be retired and replaced with a flag that is a symbol of unity, inclusive of all Mississippians.  In doing so we will show the nation and the world, and more importantly our children, that Mississippi is prepared to lead in these trying times.”

Thompson introduced Senate Bill 2727 in January by bringing forth Mississippi’s pre-existing legal code sections related to MDAH. Once it reached the Senate floor, he offered and the Senate approved by voice vote an amendment to grant the governor and lieutenant governor authority over MDAH Board of Trustees appointments.

The Daily Journal, which first reported on the bill on Feb. 16, quoted Thompson explaining that he believed the bill would create an “act of accountability that is currently not there.”

Neither the Society of Mississippi Archivists nor the historians who signed this morning’s letter referenced the current governor or lieutenant governor in their statements opposing Thompson’s new legislation, but both groups shared concerns that S.B. 2727 would hurt the “independence” and “integrity” of the MDAH Board of Trustees and risk unraveling the state’s progress.

“We cannot go back. Placing the Board of Trustees in the hands of the Executive Branch invites significant politicization of the work of the agency and threatens to undo the good that the MDAH has done in telling the stories of this state in a candid, evidence-based way,” the Society’s Feb. 18 statement said. “The ability to continue work in the preservation and accessibility of Mississippi history unencumbered by political interests is critical to its integrity, and it should remain that way.”

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