Three quarters of a century ago, “Gone with the Wind,” a film that mythologized an Old South of wealthy planters and obedient slaves, premiered in Atlanta amidst great fanfare and public interest. This week, a very different sort of film about the South of the Civil War and Reconstruction era – “Free State of Jones” -- will have its premiere, and as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of the War and Reconstruction and struggle through our own time of social and racial divisiveness, the public would do very well to take the film’s measure.
That is because “Free State of Jones,” challenges our many misconceptions of the Civil War and Reconstruction and can promote a dialogue about what may have been possible more than a century ago – and what is very much possible in our own day. “Free State of Jones” is based on a true story of interracial resistance to the Confederacy in Civil War Mississippi. It is the story of how a white farmer from humble origins named Newton Knight came to see how the Confederacy favored the rich planters at the expense of men and women like himself and chose to organize a rebellion aimed at establishing a terrain of freedom, a “free state,” in the county of Jones.
There were in fact thousands of white men and women like Newton Knight in the Confederate South who deserted from the army, harbored draft resisters, led food riots against hoarding merchants and planters, and called for an early end to the war. Some, especially from the Appalachian mountain areas, went so far as to join the Union Army.
But Newton Knight eventually went further still. The strongest resistance to the Confederacy came, not from poor white folk, but from those who were destined to be its main victims: the slaves. In Mississippi and elsewhere in the Confederate South, they took the opportunity of the War to flee their plantations and farms, head to Union lines, or form maroons in swamps and remote woodlands, denying slaveholders the labor and submission that had been expected. During his own battles with the Confederacy in rural Jones County, Knight forged alliances with African Americans, most specifically a slave named Rachel with whom he developed an intimate relationship and eventually raised a family.
The interracial alliance that appeared to be developing in Civil War Jones County truly blossomed during Reconstruction. In effect, Newton Knight joined the African Americans’ fight against local Confederates who were determined to “win the peace” through the mechanisms of black codes, apprenticeship laws, and vigilante terrorism that federal pardons issued by President Andrew Johnson had made possible.
The advent of Radical Reconstruction in 1867 enabled Knight and his black allies to build a movement that made a new dawning of freedom – emancipation, citizenship, political rights, access to land and economic independence – more of a reality than a mere dream. They organized their ranks, voted in the face of violent intimidation, claimed office, and attempted to fashion an example of interracial justice that would, in fact, survive the counterrevolutionary backlash known as Redemption and live on in a variety of important ways. A breathtaking episode it was, and one that gives the lie to long-standing demonizations of Reconstruction, which films like “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” seared into public memory, and instead demonstrates that the courageous efforts of ordinary black and white people, women and men alike, brought a new nation into being.
“Free State of Jones” reminds us that the South was always a politically and culturally diverse environment. The film shows us that not all white southerners were Confederates and white supremacists, that African Americans, as slaves and freedpeople, struggled at great risk to gain their freedom and expand its meaning, and that at crucial moments humble whites and blacks could join hands to bury a world of slavery and try to create something new. Together they left indelible marks on a history of which all southerners and all Americans should rightly be proud.
Perhaps as important, “The Free State of Jones” suggests that there is a way forward in any society with deep divisions of class and race: that commitment, understanding, shared goals, and collective struggle can overcome prejudice, parochialism, and reaction. A new look at Reconstruction can help us see how the past can and must inform the present, and “Free State of Jones” is a rich, dramatic, and valuable lens into that past.
(The film’s historical accuracy is also documented in a stunning website complete with footnotes: freestateofjones.info)
Steven Hahn won the Pulitzer Prize in history for his book A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to The Great Migration.