Free State of Jones, A Guest Review by Rod Adair*: A Real Review
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a "preview" of Free State of Jones, giving some background to the story of Newton Knight, and expressing hope that the movie would do justice to history and to the Republican Party which is so much a part of his history.
This past Saturday night I finally got a chance to see the movie, in Roswell, in an Allen Theaters* venue called "The Galaxy 8." (NOTE: Which by the way now features electronically-controlled recliners called FirstClassSeating. It was my most comfortable theater experience yet.)
The Movie Does Not Disappoint
Free State of Jones is the antidote to Gone with the Wind, and numerous other books and motion pictures that whitewash and entirely fictionalize the true story of the Civil War and its aftermath.
FSOJ is realistic about the disunity and the ridiculosity® of the Confederacy, putting to shame such downright awful films as Tennessee Johnson, from 1942, starring Van Heflin as a "heroic" Andrew Johnson.
In fact Johnson was one of the biggest villains of the post-Civil War era. Free State of Jones covers the despicable efforts of Johnson to essentially re-institute slavery by allowing fake loyalty oaths and by endorsing the "Black Codes."
These laws were adopted by the Democrat legislature in Mississippi almost immediately after the war. Democrats in South Carolina, Alabama, and Louisiana did the same in 1865, followed by their fellow party members in Florida, Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas at the beginning of 1866.
® Not found in dictionaries, but a trademarked term of NMPJ, for which the author serves as editor and occasionally contributes stories.
The Movie Portrays Reconstruction Correctly
The Black Codes (and of course Johnson's general villainy) outraged the Republican Congress and most northerners as whole, because it was clear that Johnson was allowing the South to essentially recreate slavery under different names: "Apprenticeship" laws being one of them, and that law is portrayed accurately in the movie.
Other laws included phony "vagrancy" acts intended to allow authorities to harass and control the black population.
FSOJ shows that the Reconstruction Act was passed, along with the 15th Amendment in 1870, allowing blacks to vote. A key character in the movie is shown registering blacks to vote, while resisting what Columbia professor Eric Foner calls the Democratic Party's military wing, known as the Ku Klux Klan. (See p. 425, Reconstruction, Foner.)
The character is murdered by the Klan, just as were some 4,100 black Republicans and 750 white Republicans, solely because they were trying to establish the Republican Party in the South.
Newton Knight is correctly shown as trying to register black (and white) Republicans and get them to vote.Unfortunately, many of the poor white folks who had correctly perceived that they had been used to fight the entire "rich man's war, poor man's fight," ended up falling back in with the rich Democrat landed aristocracy.
This set the stage for the institutionalized discrimination, segregation and the other Jim Crow laws that were passed after the Republicans gave up on Reconstruction in 1877,
Your Reaction to the Movie and My Earlier "Preview" Review
Because we live in the Southwest with its historical migration patterns, many of moviegoers, especially older generations, will have roots from the South. Those roots, and sadly, much of the way history books and popular culture have portrayed the era, lead to assumptions that aren't supported by history. Here is a typical reaction to the movie I received:
"My personal opinion is that it left the impression that Reconstruction was good for the South and everything went downhill when federal troops were removed. There is no doubt that terrible things were done by both sides."
Reconstruction WAS GOOD. Not only for the South, but for the entire nation. Because it was resisted so strongly through domestic terrorism, perpetrated by the Democratic Party, the Republicans gave up on it.
That was a shame because in so doing America lost 100 years of time we will never get back—time that would have been used to heal the racial divide. While we have made great strides since 1964 (far more than today's race hustlers admit) there was no need to have lost that century.
The blame for that lies solely with the Democratic Party, and it is one reason why thousands of Americans who study history could never ever become Democrats, regardless of what happens to the other parties.
I have mentioned the phenomenon of “Gone With the Wind” (the book is very anti-Republican and anti-Reconstruction, while almost none of that impression survives in the movie version).
Margaret Mitchell from Georgia grew up in schools (and in society) that were of course products of the received histories of her era. In those histories, everyone was “united” in the South during the Civil War, life was idyllic, and the slaves (Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, were all happy as clams—practically members of the family).
This was all nonsensical.
The book GWTW perpetuates the myth of "bad Republicans and Reconstruction." In reality Reconstruction was among the noblest efforts ever undertaken in America.
The so-called carpetbaggers (the overwhelming majority of whom were not greedy, get-rich-quick businessmen, but teachers, doctors, nurses, preachers, and what might today be called social workers) are the ones who actually brought public education to the south.
The South was a backward area, ruled by the few. (It’s one of the many reasons they lost the war—a war they could have won, ironically, which is yet another untold story of the incompetence of the Confederacy's ruling class.)
When the local Bourbons, Redeemers and landed gentry Democrats got back into power after 1877, they "led" the South right back into backwardness, which persisted for a century.
As mentioned above, they "led" (or conned) what some have called "the poor white trash" Democrats (as could be depicted in this scene from To Kill a Mockingbird) back with them to achieve electoral majorities, and beat down the Republican Party.
They refused to register black Republicans, like the father of Alabama's Condoleeza Rice, though (as she famously said) "the Republicans in Alabama did."
The whole foundation of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) was the work of Republicans in the South. Howard University (the “black Harvard”) is named after a white, Republican general, who became the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Many other HBCUs are named for white Republicans—Morehouse, Spelman, Shaw, Fisk, Alcorn A & M, Lincoln, and many others.
The "Terrible things were done by Both Sides" Narrative is Wrong
The acts of the “Redeemers,” the Klan, and the night-riders and lynch mobs were very one-sided. There is no "both sides" story to be told.
The definitive history of the era is Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, by Columbia professor Eric Foner. It is 600 pages of atrocities, carried out by the Ku Klux Klan, which he states was “created to be the military wing of the Democratic Party.”
The Klan and the Democratic Party officials they worked with relentlessly fought Republicans, burned houses, murdered (as I referenced above), and would not stop—despite the efforts of President Grant, the Ku Klux Klan Act, federal intervention and 3,000 cases tried in court.
(Everyone believes that charging people with federal civil rights violations is a relatively new thing—aimed at getting around local all-white juries—but it isn’t, it was started by Grant.)
Eventually, the violence, death and destruction caused the Republicans to give up. That is to their shame, though it is understandable in context. They compromised on posse comitatus and the disputed election of 1876, and essentially pulled up stakes and left in a bad bargain to get Rutherford Hayes inaugurated.
As shown in FSOJ, Democrats also practiced voter fraud on a massive scale as one of their techniques to ensure Republicans would not be able to establish a two-party system in the South.
The “Solid South” was not an accident of history it was a product of terrorism. Pure and simple.
The rest of this article contains portions of my original preview that turned out to meet my hopes for the movie:
That Newton Knight be Correctly Portrayed
During the Civil War, Newton Knight ended up like lots of southerners—he didn't think secession was a grand idea, but he was essentially caught up in what seemed like a fight for his home region, against invaders from another region—regardless of whether secession or the Confederacy were good ideas.
Later, like many southerners, he came to realize what many of us Republicans have realized in studying this era of American history: a few thousand slave owners—what Republicans of that era called "the slave power"— hoodwinked their fellow southerners, eventually hectoring eleven whole states into walking off into one of the stupidest decisions every undertaken by humankind, anywhere.
Neo-Confederates and Libertarians and the Confederacy Myth
Through the years, I have had lots of debates with folks I call "neo-Confederates," often self-described "libertarians" who try to convince me that secession was actually constitutional and that the Confederacy was actually a legitimate exercise in so-called "states rights."
History doesn't confirm any of that. Like Knight, many common folk had reservations from the beginning—my own ancestors' home county and many others voted against secession. But what got Newton Knight's goat (and many thousands of other southerners) was when, about a year into the war, the Confederate Congress passed the so-called "20 Negro Law," exempting from the draft (another not-so-libertarian legacy of the Confederacy) anyone who owned as many as 20 slaves.
At that point, many southern soldiers began to realize the Confederacy had pushed them into what was called "a rich man's war, but a poor man's fight." At the US Army Infantry School I read Company Aytch, by Sam Watkins, a Confederate diarist who wrote about the effect of the law:
"From this time on till the end of the war, a soldier was simply a machine, a conscript. It was mighty rough on rebels. We cursed the war, we cursed Bragg, we cursed the Southern Confederacy. All our pride and valor had gone, and we were sick of war and the Southern Confederacy."
What I hope to See (and did see) in the Free State of Jones
It would be nice to see acknowledgement that Newton Knight was a Republican after the war (and essentially during as well) and that he worked for the short-lived Republican majorities in Mississippi, trying to make the noble effort known as Reconstruction become a success. Reconstruction and all its goals were killed by the Democratic Party which ushered in a century of racial discrimination.
*Allen Theaters are in Roswell, Portales, Alamogordo, Ruidoso, Las Cruces, Carlsbad, Clovis, Farmington, Gallup and Hobbs.
Email us with your feedback, comments, questions and ideas.
Intelligent Political Discourse—for the Thoughtful New Mexican