Jira: Reeves pulls Mississippi backward with ‘Confederate Heritage Month’

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William Porcher Miles (1822-1899) (Vector graphics image by Crotalus horridus) / Public domain

On April 3, Miss. Governor Tate Reeves signed an executive order naming April 2020 "Confederate Heritage Month."

Violet Jira, Opinion Editor

Living in Mississippi, especially the Mississippi Delta, has always felt a bit like living in a time capsule. I pass Dockery Plantation on the way home from school, and in the summer the sprawling cotton fields are a powerful reminder that the freedom I, as a black woman, have now would not have been afforded to me a century or even a handful of decades ago. Even so, I take comfort in the fact that that is in the past. That chapter of Mississippi’s painful history is closed to be opened only for reflection and education. Or at least, I thought. 

When Mississippi’s governor, Tate Reeves, signed a proclamation declaring April 2020 “Confederate Heritage Month,” I felt what a lot of Mississippians did: shock, anger, hurt. “Confederate Heritage Month” is the opposite of what Mississippi needs–it seeks to turn our time capsule into a time machine and send us backward when Mississippians, especially African Americans, spend every day in a struggle to move forward.

The proclamation came at an odd time. With most people focused on COVID-19, it almost flew under the radar. The proclamation was signed quietly by the governor on April 3 when his executive order from two days prior was still big news. This is not the first proclamation of its kind–former Governor Phil Bryant did the same during his term. It designates all of April 2020 as “Confederate Heritage Month” aiming to “carefully and earnestly strive to appreciate our heritage and the opportunity that lies before us.” It makes no mention of the 400,000+ enslaved individuals who populated antebellum Mississippi. It makes no mention of the cause of the war. 

While a lot of Mississippians, white and black alike, found this proclamation to be both disrespectful and unnecessary, there are people who were rejoicing. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group Reeves has been affiliated with in the past are no doubt the kind of individuals who he pleased with this proclamation. On their website, they describe Confederate soldiers as “The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America” and claim that the war was fought over “preservation of liberty and freedom.” It is this assuaging of history that allows Reeves to glorify a heinous history with a clear conscience.

The Civil War was fought over slavery, plain and simple. The majority of those who raised their flags and arms against the United States did so out of a desire to continue the institution of slavery for economic and political gain. The notion that the Civil War was fought over “states rights” or “independence” is one that conveniently side-steps the real issue. This sugar-coated version of history palliates the most deadly war in America so that enthusiasts can celebrate it by hosting “secession balls” and “Old South Balls.” Meanwhile, African Americans are left feeling like they’ve been slapped in the face nearly two centuries later, as they observe the celebration of an institution that fought to keep them in chains.

There is nothing wrong with reflecting upon your history. But the kind of individuals that Reeves is catering to with this declaration don’t want to reflect upon it. They seek to honor and magnify it with a reverence that is unbecoming when taking into consideration what the Confederates were fighting for. After Reeves signed the declaration, The Sons of Confederate Veterans posted it to their Facebook page with the caption “God bless the Confederate Soldier…May he, or his sacrifices, never be forgotten.” I agree that history should not be forgotten. After all, history forgotten is history repeated. But there are ways to remember your history without putting it on a pedestal. There is no “Nazi Heritage Month,” but Germany’s past has not been forgotten. The memory lies in somber memorials and tributes to the victims, not statues, flags and celebratory holidays.

In the words of former slave Frederick Douglass, “We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” Our present and future lie not in the ideas fought for by the Confederacy but in denouncing those ideas and taking steps towards healing centuries-old wounds that they created. Mississippi is nothing if not steeped in history. It is soaked into the soil that made our state home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States, while those who worked it were in chains. It’s in towns across the state like Vicksburg, Jackson and Meridian where Civil War cannons lay dormant, passive reminders of a war that killed thousands to keep others in bondage. 

Mississippi is not Mississippi without this history. But the continued reinstatement of  “Confederate Heritage Month” seeks not solely to reflect upon it but to glorify it. Mississippi struggles enough to move away from the ways of its past and this does nothing but draw us backward. “Confederate Heritage Month” gives those who wish to an excuse to hold on to abhorrent ideas of the past for just a little bit longer at the expense and hurt of African Americans across the South.