On January 6, 2021 when a mob stormed the Capitol building the Confederate flag was prominently displayed. This was a storm half a century coming and could have/should have been seen and dealt with by security agencies decades ago. It’s not as if these people keep themselves hidden. In early November 1995, I drove around Mississippi to report a five-part essay series for the BBC World Service called Going South. This essay was the last in that series. It will form part of the collection, History of a Calamity, which I will be publishing on substack.
As you drive along Highway 90 in Biloxi, Mississippi, just between the modern sports arena and the stretch of new motels and casinos, you pass a sign saying 'Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Shrine'. When you're going a little over the speed limit, you only get a glimpse of what the sign is referring to: a magnificent 19th Century mansion hidden behind a fence and shaded by huge oak trees.
I decided to visit, not because from the high speed glimpse I'd had, the house was beautiful, and not because it was a place of historic interest, but because of the language on the sign. The word 'shrine' was intriguing. Jefferson Davis was the first and only President of the Confederate States of America, and the Beauvoir estate was his residence in the long years after he was released from prison following the Confederate defeat in the American Civil War. Davis was indicted for treason but never tried.
If the sign outside his home had read 'Jefferson Davis Memorial', I wouldn't have thought twice and driven on. But 'Jefferson Davis Shrine', with its religious connotations, was both hyperbolic and intriguing.
But as I began my tour of Beauvoir, I quickly came to the conclusion that ‘shrine’ didn't seem so far-fetched. The place was dedicated entirely to 'The Cause': the Southern states' futile attempt to secede from the United States, and create a new nation on American soil. At Beauvoir, the Southern Confederacy is remembered as a vanished nation, its people vanquished, and Jefferson Davis martyred. Davis was the only one of the South's leaders to be imprisoned at the end of the Civil War.
Just as at a saint's shrine there are relics, chief of these is the Confederate Flag: the cross of St Andrew - a great blue X - set in a field of red, the cross filled with 13 white stars. St. Andrew’s cross is the main symbol on the Scottish flag and many of those who settled the South in the century before the Civil War traced their ancestry back to that country.
Beauvoir is an antebellum mansion built with the sultry Biloxi climate in mind. It is raised off the ground on a set of pillars so that the main level of the house can catch the breezes that come off the Gulf of Mexico and allow the storm surges whipped up by hurricanes on the Gulf, just the other side of the highway, to flow underneath the house without flooding it.
A local volunteer greets you as you walk into the grand foyer of the mansion, and fills you in on the history of the Jefferson Davis family.
I've visited many Civil War monuments, but there was something different about walking around Beauvoir. At Gettysburg battlefield, the Civil War seems like history as a record of the past; at Beauvoir, the Civil War was history as unfinished business.
The bookstore was full of revisionist Civil War historical tracts with titles like 'Facts The Historians Leave Out'. The woman showing people around the main house was reading a book called 'What They Don't Teach You In History Class'.
Beauvoir is administered by The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a heritage organisation for descendants of those who fought for the southern cause. I asked Ms Klippinger, the lady reading about the history they don't teach you, to put me in touch with the Sons, and she very kindly did.
So later that afternoon, I drove down Highway 90 to Gulfport, and knocked on the door of Dr. Tommy Hughes. He invited me into his home and led me down a corridor to his wood-paneled study with pictures of the ancestors on the walls. Hughes was a lifelong member of the organization
"You get brought up in it. It's like going to Sunday school," Hughes explained. The Sons of Confederate Veterans have 24,000 members, organised into clubs called ‘camps’. There are regular “camp meetings” and events.
Much of their activity centres around putting on great-granddaddy's uniform and re-enacting Civil War battles, although Hughes admitted that wasn't for him,“I have no desire to put on a wool uniform in the middle of summer and suffer like those people.” Tommy Hughes maintained his connection to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in order to pay tribute to his ancestors, and those from the Gulf Coast who fought for “the cause.”
“So, what is the cause?”
“The cause is the constitution, which gives states the right to control their own destinies, not to be controlled from Washington.”
Not for the first time in Mississippi I suggested that the right the Confederates wanted to preserve was the right to own slaves.
“I'd like to be open-minded about it, but I'm from the South.” Hughes said. "My great-grandfather didn't own slaves. You can't convince me that he gave up everything to fight for slavery. He was fighting for something else.”
Cognitive dissonance is an essential part of the modern, educated Confederate’s psychological profile. Preserving slavery was the issue for which the states’ rights argument was deployed. So, of course, Hughes’ great-grandfather was fighting to preserve the “peculiar institution” and the man in whose study I was sitting was too intelligent not to understand that.
There was no point in arguing with my host, anymore than one can argue with a deeply religious Christian about the Virgin Birth. Besides, Hughes was happy to speak to me and I wanted to hear what he had to say. Reporters use the skill sets of other professions to do the job. Sometimes we’re like cops, asking forensic questions, using our eyes and our guts to decide whether what we are being told is factually true. Sometimes, as in this case, we’re like therapists letting the people we interview free associate, nudging them with questions, not interrupting to argue, nodding along to make interviewees feel safe so they can speak their innermost thoughts.
Hughes told me a history of America that I had never heard before. It went like this: The South was the only part of the United States that had ever been occupied by its own government. The occupation had lingered well into the twentieth century. This had left a scar. Mississippi, and particularly the Gulf Coast, had not really been fully reintegrated into the US until World War 2 when, with its mangrove swamps and long coast line, the region had become a major training center for troops shipping out to the Pacific.
As Hughes told the story, 75 years after the occupation of the South began it came to an end as hundreds of thousands of people from other parts of the country were shipped in to train before shipping out to fight. Mississippians were forced to meet and interact with the ethnic mix from northern cities. This had opened up the state and changed minds about Yankees — a term that was still being used in its Civil War connotation of “invader” in the 1940s.
As he told his story, I free associated a bit myself. One of the stock cartoon characters I watched as a kid in the 1950s was an old Confederate soldier with long, white mustache, waking up from a snooze shouting, “The South will rise!” and then drifting back to sleep.
I could imagine what a collision the arrival of Jews and Italians from New York and other cities of the northeast had on the residents of the somnolent Gulf Coast towns at a time when the Civil War was within living memory for many. I could equally imagine the bemusement of those “ethnic” types, who had learned about the Civil War in school and thought it was over and then drove past Beauvoir and the Jefferson Davis shrine and found out that it wasn’t.
I could also imagine these “Yankees” from up north being stunned by Jim Crow and the raw racism on display in signs and words and deeds. They might have been prejudiced against Blacks in their home towns—odds are they were—but the racial animosity in this part of the world was at an incomprehensible level.
“We really didn’t begin to reintegrate into the rest of the US until the war,” Hughes reiterated. “And yet, we are among the most patriotic Americans. Mississippians fought in all America’s wars, even when we were occupied. Did you know that per capita more soldiers from Mississippi have won the Medal of Honor than any other state?”
There was no way to fact check that claim so I just nodded.
Then Hughes asked me something white folks all over Mississippi had been asking me.
"Have you been to Natchez?"
"No. Everybody tells me I should go.”
“You really must go to Natchez. It's beautiful there. It's the way the South was.”
And, as Natchez was on my way back North, and my time in Mississippi was coming to an end, I went.
Even on a grey November afternoon, Natchez was, indeed, beautiful. Situated on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi river, Natchez was the first great port north of New Orleans. Most of Mississippi was laid waste during the war but for some reason, the Union Army decided not to destroy Natchez. The local legend is the town was so beautiful, even the Yankees didn’t want to destroy it. People in other parts of Mississippi say it’s because the wealthy folks of Natchez didn't resist fiercely enough.
Whatever the reason, today it is the only place in the state where you can see what Mississippi looked like before the Civil War and it's pretty impressive. There are dozens of grand mansions lining the streets, some in brick, some in white stucco, most with great colonnaded porticos in the classical style.
Some houses are open to the public. I stopped in at one and, just like at Beauvoir, asked in the gift shop if they could put me in touch with the local Sons of Confederate Veterans. And, just like at Beauvoir, I was put in touch with a professional man, C.C. Miller, a veterinarian. By luck that evening there was a camp meeting of the Natchez chapter at the Ramada Inn and Miller extended an invitation.
It was a dinner meeting with about 25 or 30 people in attendance. The head table was on a little dais. At one end was the American flag and at the other was the Confederate flag. The meeting started with the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, something I hadn’t done since leaving school. I put my hand over my heart and recited the words.
The assembly then turned to the Confederate flag, and right hands open, palm up, pledged this oath. “I salute the Confederate flag with affection, reverence, and undying devotion to the cause for which it stands.”
After dinner a video was shown. During a recent national convention of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a group of young African-Americans had brought pressure on the city’s Mayor to stop the Sons flying the Confederate flag. The Mayor had bowed to their request, and the video told the story of the Sons’ battle to display their colors.
If I hadn't visited Beauvoir I might have found the seriousness with which the Sons viewed the tape comic. But it was clear the flag really was as precious as a religious relic for them. When the meeting was over some people came over to me and asked me what I thought about the video. And I had to admit out loud that I was in two minds.
On the one hand, of all the expressions of racism in America, from mass incarceration of Black men to underfunding of education in Black neighborhoods to continued suppression of African-American voters, displaying the Confederate flag doesn't seem the key issue to argue about. For many people it's just the “rebel” flag. That is how it’s symbolism is interpreted all over the world. Outlaws, rebels, disaffected youths respond to it as a symbol of standing up against the rules. It is a romantic symbol of lost causes.
But on the other hand, I'm not Black, so I can't say what the flag means to someone whose great grandfather was a slave. And I know how these symbols can hurt. I never got used to seeing the swastika painted all over India, even though I knew it was an ancient Hindu religious symbol, and had nothing to do with Nazism.
I don't think my talmudic dialogue between these two points of view impressed them. For the Sons, this was a simple question of rights, and theirs were being infringed. One fellow in particular, a round, ruddy-faced man, was extremely agitated just thinking of the injustice of it all. It was his flag and his right to show it. And I was a representative of all those who were trying to censor his culture.
He was so agitated that I never caught his name. But I did catch his drift. He was in my face with it. The freedoms guaranteed by the constitution were being so badly eroded by the coercive federal government, that citizens of the United States were no longer free, in his view.
“Well, if you don't think you're free, what is freedom?” I asked. But he rumbled on, "Look at Ruby Ridge!”
At Ruby Ridge in 1992, federal law enforcement agents shot and killed a white supremacist named Randy Weaver. It was the first in an escalating series of deadly incidents between the federal government and those who wished to live outside its purview. This had culminated in the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh a few months previously. 168 people had been killed.
I got the sense that while most of the folks in the room didn't condone the bombing, they understood the frustrations that led McVeigh and his confederates to take their action. We spoke a bit about the militia movement from which McVeigh had emerged and I expressed surprise that there didn’t seem to be much militia activity in Mississippi. One fellow explained there was no need for militias in the state, since they were the home of the original militia movement, the Confederate States of America.
In a sense, the little groups setting up their own protectorates in places like Montana and Idaho - enclaves that deny the constitutional legitimacy of today's federal government - are the heirs of the Confederate cause. They are mini-secessionists and the right to secede, to break the social compact that created America, was what these fellows' forbears fought for.
And that right was guaranteed by the constitution according to the ruddy-faced man, whose complexion was getting redder by the minute. “Those states had the right to secede from the union.”
And then something in me snapped. I had spent the last 2 weeks driving around Mississippi listening to people who were my fellow Americans but whose wretched 19th century racial views were alien to me. I'd held my tongue because my job was to listen, not to argue. Most of those conversations had been with men like Hughes and Miller, educated professionals. This guy was different and he had closed the physical space between us in a disrespectful, threatening way.
I told him “First of all that's not true. Nowhere in the constitution does it say that the states can walk out when they want.”
“Oh, yes it does.”
And when he said this, I reached into my jacket pocket, and pulled out a Penguin mini-edition of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which I had been reading and re-reading throughout this trip.
“Show me where it says that!”
He turned the little pages with increasing frustration. He couldn’t find the passage because it doesn’t exist. I egged him on. “C’mon, show me.”
The fellow went beet-red with rage and embarrassment. “There's a lot of people around who think they know the Constitution. But they don’t!” and he stormed out.
At this moment C.C. Miller steered me away from the knot of people who had formed around the argument.
“Some fellas get a little hot-headed.”
“Yeah, I see.”
In calmer tones, we continued to talk about our views of America, refracted through the disputed prism of the constitution, which in C.C.’s opinion had been degraded and reinterpreted away from its original intentions, particularly in religion.
“America is a Christian country” said the veterinarian. “It was founded by white Christians.” I said, “Look, it may be that the US was founded by white men, most of whom were Christians, but the constitution specifically states there will be no official religion established. How do you think I as a non-Christian feel about the idea of the US being a ‘Christian’ nation?”
He answered firm but polite, “You're a minority. That's tough.”
Sitting with us were a couple of teenage boys who attended private white Christian schools. What limited contact they had with Black people was pretty tense. Robert Bush told me about a friend who had been badly beaten up by a group of young African-American students. “One day we'll get back at ‘em,” he said with quiet certainty.
I asked the young man if he ever thought about where Blacks were coming from, what it was like to know your ancestors had been slaves, bought and sold in this very state, and then freed into profound poverty. Did he ever think what effect that might have on a group of people? He looked genuinely puzzled. “I've never really thought about that.”
Not thinking about these things is how the Confederate mind set endures.
The next morning I drove North fast, faster than I should have. I crossed over the Mississippi River at Vicksburg and followed its western shore through Louisiana and Arkansas. I was still agitated from the night before, partially because I found the views expressed extreme, yet most of the folks in the room were not from the extremist fringe. In fact, like C.C. Miller they were pretty middle class. What had me agitated was this: I knew that their views weren't unique to the south.
I re-crossed the big river at Greenville, and headed straight through the Delta up to Clarksdale. I parked on what was left of the town's railroad tracks, and walked into Wade Walton's barbershop,
Two weeks earlier, depending on the kindness of strangers, I had been directed there. Wade Walton, like Tommy Hughes and CC Miller, was the contact person for outsiders, particularly white outsiders, who wanted to connect to Clarksdale’s black community and in particular it’s musicians. Clarksdale is the centre of the Mississippi Delta blues scene. Walton, a bluesman himself, had helped me meet some players.
“You’re back?” the barber said with a bit of surprise. White reporters in love with the blues pass through Clarksdale regularly and are sent to see Walton by the town’s citizens. It’s usually a one time only thing.
Walton was giving a haircut to a dapper-looking man: Henry Espy, Mayor of Clarksdale. From the barber's chair, Espy asked what parts of the state I had visited.
“Well, I've been to Tupelo."
Espy shook his head in mock-seriousness. "It's cold over there."
“They just want your money.”
“Then last night I met with the Sons of Confederate Veterans down in Natchez.”
At this, he laughed uncontrollably. “They’re the Klan!”
We nattered on a bit, then I asked a question that had been building in the fortnight I had been in the state. I know the history of the Great Migration and having encountered an impregnable racism everywhere, racism that was like the weather, always present, but unlike the weather never changing, I wanted to know:
“Why stay in Mississippi?”
One fellow hanging around the shop, waiting for his turn in the chair, said "It's home. I tried living in Oakland California for a while. I came back after a few months.”
“Too fast, too violent. In Clarksdale you hear about people being killed. In Oakland, you hear 'em being killed.”
The Mayor answered my question this way; "I don't think I'm part of Mississippi. I look North … I look North.”
Still looking North, after all these years.
Twenty-five years later, as part of the wave of national revulsion over the murder of George Floyd, the Confederate flag, which had for more than a century occupied the upper left corner of Mississippi’s state banner, was finally removed. A referendum was held to decide on a design to replace it. Voters chose the image of a magnolia blossom.
The Confederate Flag may have been replaced, but the Confederate mindset has spread across the country. Talk of secession is heard in states and localities a world away from Mississippi, the most “Southern Place on Earth.” The notion that the United States is a white Christian country is no longer something you hear only at the monthly camp meetings of the Sons of Confederate Veterans or at churches in the rural South. White “evangelical” Christians, who genuinely think that the US belongs to them in an exclusive way, have long been the make or break constituency of the Republican Party nationwide.
The riot at the Capitol Building on January 6th was an inevitable expression of the Confederate mindset. You can ban the modern Confederates’ holy flag and tear down all the statues of their generals but the intellectual framework behind those symbols remains in permanent secession from the rest of the country. The fact that it does is an essential element in America’s calamity.
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