JACKSON, Miss. — Commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War can be an angst-filled task in Mississippi, with its long history of racial strife and a state flag that still bears the Confederate battle emblem.
Well-intentioned Mississippians who work for racial reconciliation say slavery was morally indefensible. Still, some speak in hushed tones as they confess a certain admiration for the valor of Confederate troops who fought for what was, to them, the hallowed ground of home and country.
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“Mississippi has such a troubled past that a lot of people are very sensitive about commemorating or recognizing or remembering the Civil War because it has such an unpleasant reference for African-Americans,” said David Sansing, who is white and a professor emeritus of history at the University of Mississippi.
“Many Mississippians are reluctant to go back there because they don’t want to remind themselves or the African-American people about our sordid past,” said Sansing. “But it is our past.”
Black Mississippians express pride that some ancestors were Union soldiers who fought to end slavery, though it took more than a century for the U.S. to dismantle state-sanctioned segregation and guarantee voting rights.
Sansing is among dignitaries who will be traveling to Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md., this weekend to dedicate a blue-gray granite marker commemorating the 11th Mississippi Infantry, which saw 119 members killed, wounded or missing in battle there on Sept. 16-17, 1862. The infantry had almost 1,000 soldiers, including a unit of University of Mississippi students known as the University Greys.
Among the speakers set to dedicate the monument Sunday is Bertram Hayes-Davis, great-great grandson of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. He was recently hired as executive director of Beauvoir, the white-columned Biloxi, Miss., mansion that was the final home of his ancestor, a Mississippi native.
The state is taking a decidedly low-key and scholarly approach to commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
Re-enactments have taken place at battlefields near Tupelo and are planned soon near Iuka. Lectures, concerts and other gatherings are scheduled over the next several months. Several events are expected in 2013 to mark the 1863 siege of Vicksburg, which gave the Union control of the Mississippi River.
Mississippi is the last state with a flag that includes the Confederate battle emblem, a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars. The symbol has been on the state flag since 1894. In a 2001 statewide election, voters decided nearly 2-to-1 to keep it, despite arguments it was racially divisive and tarnishing the state’s image.
With a population that’s 38 percent black, Mississippi has elected hundreds of public officials in the past four decades – a change directly linked to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Many people, across racial lines, say it’s important that Civil War history commemorations not turn into celebrations of a lost cause.
Derrick Johnson, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said generations have been taught a “revisionist history” of the Civil War that ignores or downplays the impact of slavery. He said he wants a full discussion of the war.