OXFORD, Miss. – Newt Knight is described as a “deserter, renegade, and assassin” on the Web site of the local Sons of the Confederate Veterans chapter in Jones County, Miss., but Lew Smith in the nearby town of Sumrall has a different view.
“Old Newt is a big hero to me personally,” says Smith, who describes himself as a “life-long union man, white guy” who has been married to an African American woman for 45 years. “His willingness to stand tall for his ex-slave wife and bi-racial family.”
Add to that Knight’s willingness to challenge the “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight” that essentially was the Civil War.
Smith hasn’t seen the new film “The Free State of Jones”, starring Matthew McConaughey and Mississippi-bred talent such as Oxford’s own Johnny McPhail. “In a way I’m hesitant to watch the movie. … So often Hollywood screws things up.”
He needn’t worry. I’ve seen the movie, and it’s excellent. Director Gary Ross, whose credits include the now-classic “Seabiscuit”, spent two years researching the complex history of Jones County, Miss., during the Civil War, research that included Victoria E. Bynum’s book, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War.
It’s a 150-year-old story that resonates today as Mississippi still wrestles with the Confederate symbolism that rests on its flag as well as on its countless courthouse lawns. It’s a story that’s also still current in its challenge to the racial divisions that have forever haunted Mississippi and the South.
Newt Knight was a tee-totaling backwoodsman from southeast Mississippi who volunteered to serve in the Confederacy. He began his own rebellion against the Confederacy after passage of the so-called “Twenty Negro Law”, which allowed Southerners to avoid conscription if they owned 20 slaves or more. Most of the small farmers who dominated rural Jones County and surrounding counties owned no slaves and had little interest in preserving slavery.
Furthermore, the Confederacy allowed troops to confiscate small farmers’ crops and livestock as a kind of insidious “tax” to support the war effort. “You think they do that to the plantation owner in Natchez?” McConaughey’s Newt Knight tells his fellow Southerners as he launches his rebellion. “We got no country. We are the country. No man ought to stay poor so another can get rich.”
Knight leads an armed and violent resistance against the Confederacy that declares Jones County a “free state”. His break with Southern tradition extends to his personal life when he enters into a long-term relationship with a slave named Rachel and sires children by her. Their descendants still live today in the Jones County area.
“The Free State of Jones” stands out in the recent crop of Civil War or slavery-related films—“Lincoln”, “12 Years a Slave”, and Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation”. Each challenges the myths and stereotypes embedded in Hollywood classics like D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 and David O. Selznick’s “Gone With The Wind” in 1939.
What distinguishes “The Free State of Jones” is its direct challenge to prevailing myths such as what Ross calls the “monolithic” ante-bellum South. “There were areas of Southern unionism all across the South,” he says in a Huffington Post Facebook video.
Jones County may one of the more famous examples, but another is the entire state of West Virginia, which exists because it refused to follow Virginia’s secession from the union. Many of the small farmers and mountain folk in the western portion of my own native North Carolina rebelled against the Rebels. They didn’t own slaves and saw no reason for the fight.
“The Free State of Jones” points to a dark consistency in Southern history that stretches from ante-bellum day until today. Soon after the Civil War, a landowning elite returned to power and instituted the so-called “Black Codes” that allowed black children to be taken into a forced “apprenticeship” that meant back to the fields. Of course, Reconstruction was eventually followed by Jim Crow, sharecropping and tenant farming, the entire retinue of the Southern elite’s insistence on cheap and, if possible, free labor.
Mississippi and the South as a whole are still dealing with the legacy of what forced Newt Knight to rebel against the Southern rebellion. Witness the ongoing controversy about the Confederate flag emblem in Mississippi’s state flag. At the University of Mississippi, a plaque is being placed next to the Confederate statue on campus that says the monument may honor Confederate soldiers’ sacrifice but it “must also remind us that the defeat of the Confederacy actually meant freedom for millions of people.”
Newt Knight’s story reaches beyond the South. His statement in the movie that “no man ought to stay poor so another can get rich” could be a rallying cry for the entire nation.
This column ran recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.