Baptists, citing another tradition in the South, denounce Confederate flag

JACKSON, Miss. – Two recent, very different, actions illustrate that although those in power have tried to repress it, the tradition of fighting racism in the South runs as deep as the racism itself: the Mississippi NAACP is petitioning for a Union Army Appreciation Month and the Southern Baptist Convention has denounced the Confederate flag as a “symbol of hatred, bigotry and racism.”

Mississippi’s right wing government is probably the most recalcitrant in the South. For example, despite actions to the contrary throughout the South, Mississippi has kept the Confederate battle flag flying everywhere. In fact, it’s part of the official state flag.

Moreover, there’s a huge statue in front of the State Capitol honoring the white women of the Confederacy; none honoring enslaved persons who fought for freedom.

Mississippi’s right wing governor, Phil Bryant, has been bleeding the state dry. He’s given so many tax breaks to corporations, the state is broke. There’s little money for public schools or Medicaid or infrastructure repair, or for any social welfare program.

When such situations have arisen in the past, Mississippi governors would explicitly invoke “white supremacy” to stop blacks and whites from organizing together for change.

But it’s 2016. Today, right wingers like Bryant are more subtle than the racists of the past. Last April, Governor Bryant declared a “Confederate Heritage Month.”

However, as has been true throughout Southern history, whenever racism has been used by the powerful, people have fought back. [See Freedom fighting: also a Southern tradition, People’s World, July 6, 2015].

In this case, the Mississippi State Conference NAACP is circulating a petition to Gov. Bryant calling on him to declare a Union Army Heritage Month.

An NAACP statement says, ” … if it is heritage that should be honored by [a governor’s] proclamation, then the history of soldiers from Mississippi who served in the Union Army deserve their recognition as well.”

The statement continues, “These Mississippians were patriots who fought for the preservation of this great nation and we must preserve their history and legacy so that future generations can understand the sacrifice of our ancestors. To do otherwise would encourage a revisionist history that dishonors the memory of our families, friends, and neighbors who fought, bled, and died for freedom and for the nation.

“… tens of thousands of  white and black soldiers from Mississippi fought for the United States in the war. Should not their lives be recognized …?”

The petition lists examples of battles where black soldiers defeated better trained, better equipped units of the Confederate army.

It also cites two Mississippi counties, Jones and Jasper, that “voted 2 to 1 against secession from the Union and under the leadership of Newton Knight formed the Free State of Jones county and joined the Union in adherence to their Christian ideals and in the interest of the preservation of liberty and a unified nation.” (A major Hollywood motion picture, “Free State of Jones,” portrays this history.)

Meanwhile, at its annual meeting this past Tuesday at a site near Ferguson, Missouri, the very influential Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) passed a resolution denouncing the Confederate flag as a “symbol of hatred, bigotry and racism” that offends millions of people.

The proclamation grabbed headlines across the South and shows that the South’s fighting, progressive tradition is alive and well.

The SBC is the world’s largest Baptist denomination and the largest Protestant body in the United States, with nearly 16 million members as of 2012. Founded in 1845, it has been a bastion of racism.

But to survive, the SBC has had to become more inclusive.

The resolution against the Confederate flag was originally introduced by Pastor Dwight McKissic, who is an African American. The resolutions committee greatly watered it down and presented it for a vote. Their version called on Southern Baptists to “consider … limiting” the display of the flag.

However, James Merritt, a white descendent of slave owners, could tell that version would not fly with the general body. He supported the original version, which said “We call on our brothers and sisters in Christ to discontinue the display of the Confederate Battle flag as a sign of solidarity of the whole Body of Christ, including our African American brothers and sisters.”

Columnist Katie Eubanks wrote in the Jackson Clarion Ledger that “I’ve been attending Southern Baptist churches … since before I could read – and I’m glad my denomination voted last week to ‘repudiate’ (reject, disown, condemn) the display of the Confederate flag.”

“I’m familiar with the ‘heritage, not hate argument,'” Eubanks wrote, “But by the time I was a young adult, I had a healthy disgust for the Confederate flag … because I know right from wrong and because I know what the flag harkens back to.

“My parents set me straight when my 11th grade history teacher said the Civil War was not about slavery.”

Across the South today, and throughout history, black and white Southerners have been struggling against the racism that the powers-that-be having been trying to pass off as the sole Southern tradition.

Photo: During the Civil War tens of thousands of people from Mississippi fought for the Union, not the Confederacy. A new Hollywood film (“Free State of Jones,” pictured) depicts the struggles of white and black Mississippians against the Confederacy and how they pulled two counties in the state out of the Confederacy.   |  Free State of Jones Facebook page


Larry Rubin
Larry Rubin

Larry Rubin has been a union organizer, a speechwriter and an editor of union publications. He was a civil rights organizer in the Deep South and is often invited to speak on applying Movement lessons to today's challenges. He has produced several folk music shows.