“Now I want you to tell me just one thing more. Why do you hate the South?”
“I dont hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “I dont hate it,” he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! (Vintage International). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Like most people, I have some lovely memories of childhood. I grew up in Mississippi in the 1960s with the smell of honeysuckle and the sound of cicadas. Israeli friends tell me that they hear the soft rounded sounds of Southern vowels in my speech from time to time. I went to school there from the 5th grade in elementary school through graduation from college. I was away for three years in the Army. After my military service, I returned for a couple of years to attend Mississippi State University. I left in 1977. Since then, I’ve been back to Mississippi less than a handful of times. Even so, Mississippi is part of who I am.
One memory I cherish from growing up in Mississippi concerns my mother. Many Sundays, she would take my sister and me out for lunch. We always went to the same restaurant, the Redwood Inn. Invariably, I asked for the same food – a footlong hot dog and a Nehi Orange Crush to drink. The hot dog came in an open cardboard box shaped like an old wooden jolly-boat. The container had a ruler printed along the length of both long sides so you could check and make sure you received your full 12 inches of the hot dog.
When possible, we sat at the same booth, one of those large booths made of wood with high backs and seat cushions. A fascinating picture hung at the end of the row where we sat. When we entered the row, at the farthest distance from the image, it looked like a skull drawing. As we drew nearer the picture, it turned into a portrait of a young woman seated at a dresser gazing at herself in a large mirror.
The Inn sat next to a motel, the Redwood Tourist Court. The Inn served as a convenient dining location for travelers who had taken rooms in the motel. Both buildings were on the edge of Battlefield Park, a Civil War Park in Jackson, at the intersection of Terry Road and Highway 51. It is the Civil War Park that brings to mind some not so pleasant memories.
Civil Wars are among the deadliest types of wars any country ever fights, for a divided country fights against itself. The American Civil War is the bloodiest in American history. Approximately 620,000 Americans died in the Civil War. Compare this number to the country’s losses in WWI (116,516) and WWII (418,500). More Americans died in the Civil War than in WWI and WWII combined. (https://www.informerzone.com/10-bloodiest-wars-in-united-states-history/). And the wounds from the Civil War have not wholly healed. My most unpleasant childhood memories arise from the residue of these wounds.
An assassin shot and killed President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. I was in school at the time of the murder, thirteen-years-old, in the eighth grade. In the afternoon, a school administrator interrupted our studies and, in a solemn voice, announced President Kennedy’s death to the class. And we applauded. Our teacher, to her great credit, stopped us almost immediately. But how could young people have done such a thing? How could they clap for the murder of the leader of their country? Did they get the thoughts that guided their behavior, and it is painful to say this, in their homes? Was it learned from friends, teachers, schools, taught in their houses of worship? Admittedly, not all of these sources were bad. There were many good parents, of course, good teachers, good friends, and ministers. Maybe there were just not enough of them. I don’t know.
A little over seven months later, watching the news on television in my parents’ bedroom, I saw something horrible. The FBI discovered the bodies of three young men. One was from Meridian. The other two had come to Mississippi from New York City to help with black voter registration. The men’s killers hid the bodies of their victims in an earthen dam. The news showed the discovery of their shallow grave. I remember sitting on my parents’ bed, wondering why we lived in Mississippi and why my parents moved there. How could we live in such a place?
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about Mississippi and growing up there. From this very personal experience, I want to make a few suggestions about how we might begin to put a little balm on this deep wound. As you read them, please think of each ending with the words, “so it seems to me.”
- No statue or memorial to any leader of the Confederacy, political, military or otherwise, should stand in or on any public property. I am thinking of people like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, to name just a few. However, I do not believe that crowds of people, no matter their anger, should deface or tear down monuments or memorials in a vigilante manner. The civil authorities should remove them with due speed and store them away from the public, pending a thoughtful discussion and decision about what to do with them.
- In small towns across the South, you will frequently see a civil war monument dedicated to the memory of men from the area who died fighting as Confederate soldiers. It often sits in a prominent public place, in the middle of the town square, for example, or in a city park. I believe that these monuments should stay; they record part of the town’s history. But the words on them should be simple: lists of the names, an indication that they were residents of the city who fought and died during the Civil War. Words like “in defense of a noble cause,” and that sort of thing should not be part of this type of memorial. But “Sacred to the memory of…” or something like it is fitting. People all across America, North and South, of different races and religions, lost parents, spouses, siblings, and children in that horrible war. We owe it to them to remember them and to do so publicly.
- No military installation, fort, airbase, training facility, etc., should be named after any person who fought against the United States. There should be no Forts named Benning, Bragg, Lee, Polk, or any other military installation bearing a Confederate soldier’s name. How can we name places where we train men and women to defend the United States for men who rebelled against it? There’s a long enough list of American heroes to use.
- The Confederate flag belongs inside museums if it belongs anywhere.
None of these things will heal a gaping chest wound, but together they can do a little something. So it seems to me.
During one of my visits to Mississippi, I was touring the Old Capitol building. At the end of my tour, I asked for advice concerning which of two books to purchase, books about Mississippi history. The person helping me said the author of one of the books recounted the traditional, romanticized view of Mississippi’s history, which many Mississippians wanted to believe. But then my helper handed me the other one. I felt better about Mississippi and its future than I had in a long time.
All the best,