“Everybody in the Mississippi Delta was a racist, white or black. Racism was built into our bones. It is a thing we will never recover from having committed, but it also had its side that we always benefitted from…I lived in a society that was filled with horrors, as you look back on it. They were not horrors at the time.”
They say that time heals all wounds, but the maxim only applies if the wounds are properly tended to. You can’t just leave a gaping sore open to the influence of the oppressive environment in which it was born and it expect it to get better. No, a wound left untended amongst a sea of malignant influences is sure to bloom with miasmatic glory before long. By the same token, no healing is going to take place if the regeneration of flesh is interrupted by a public that believes the best course of action is to perpetually pick at the wound with their cruddy, unwashed fingertips, waiting until little rivulets of pus and blood begin to run down their arm before they finally stop long enough to let it to scab over again. Time alone is sufficient for the mending of paper cuts and carpet burns, but when it comes to the deep, ravineous gashes that cut down to the bone, it is nothing more than an incubation period. The reality is that time is a neutral agent—something that possesses the ability to help and harm our collective injuries in equal measure. It does not heal. It does not hurt. It merely facilitates.
During his Second Inaugural, President Lincoln spoke of the necessity of “binding up the nation’s wounds” and caring for those who had borne the battle if we were ever to see a prolonged peace. He acknowledged the contradictions of war and spoke to the absurdities that spring from it, asking how it could be that two groups of men who read the same Bible and worshiped the same god could pray for victory over their enemy and expect Him to answer one group’s prayer, but not the other. By the end of his address, Lincoln had framed the Civil War and all of the suffering attendant to it as a sort of divine reckoning that had come and would come to pass over a nation which had harvested the fruits of slavery for 250 years,saying:
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”
It has been nearly 150 years since President Lincoln let his countrymen know the debt he believed we owed to our creator and, 150 years later, we have yet to pay it off. Well, to be fair, we’ve already paid one half of the debt off. Or at least I hope we have. Call me an optimist, but I would think that the Civil War itself would be enough to atone for all of the blood that had been drawn by the lash during the course of American slavery. That’s not to say that the country didn’t immediately start accruing more cosmic debt from the moment Reconstruction started, but I’d like to think that more than 700,000 gallons of blood in a 4 year span would satiate whatever bloodlust god had up to the point.(1) It’s that whole accumulation of ill-gotten wealth from 250 years unrequited toil part that we’ve never really made a lot of progress on.
Earlier in his Second Inaugural, Lincoln made a covert dig at the morality of the Confederate position on slavery when he commented on the strangeness of a people asking, “a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” To a modern reader, it might seem like a strange choice of words, but his audience in 1865 was likely to pick up on the biblical allusion Lincoln was making. In the Book of Genesis, god puts a curse upon the ground after discovering that Adam and Eve have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, telling Adam that, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”With this as context, it would seem that Lincoln is painting the practice of slavery as a violation of god’s will as it is an economic system designed to absolve one group of people from the curse of god on the land by making another group bear twice the burden. It is not so much a condemnation of the particular institution of slavery as it is the practice of systematically exploiting the labor of your fellow man for unearned personal gain. Had he lived through Reconstruction, I have little doubt that Lincoln would have been just as disgusted with the practices of sharecropping and convict leasing as he was with slavery and that he would have done everything in his power as President to stifle their spread through the South.
But, Lincoln did not live through Reconstruction. In fact, he didn’t even make it through the second month of his second term, thanks to a deranged Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth who decided it was incumbent upon himself to avenge Old Dixie by assassinating our 16th President in the middle of a showing of Our American Cousin. Tragically, Booth’s nerve was not shared by one of his co-conspirators, George Atzerodt, who was supposed the kill Vice President Andrew Johnson on that same night, but got cold feet. Thus, we had a situation in which the greatest President our nation had ever known was assassinated, only to be replaced by a man who would prove to be the one of the worst we’ve ever had to endure.
From his quick and largely consequence free reinstatement of former Confederate leaders and endorsement of discriminatory Black Codes in many Southern states, to his vetoing of legislation that proposed civil rights increases and an extension for the Freedman’s Bureau, Johnson played the part of the white supremacist savior, effectively killing off any hope that the civil rights of blacks in this country would go beyond mere emancipation in the near future. The slaves had been nominally given their freedom, but Johnson was determined that they shouldn’t be given anything else. Under his watch, the rights and opportunities available to white men would not be extended to any other race and the ascendency of a new American hatred would begin.
In the span of three years, our country went from a President who urged his fellow Americans to have malice towards none and charity towards all to a President who demonized one section of the population for the benefit of another and unironically warned that if the black race, “obtains the ascendency over the [white race], it will govern with reference only to its own interests for it will recognize no common interest–and create such a tyranny as this continent has never yet witnessed.” In Andrew Johnson’s words you can hear the contempt and revulsion for his fellow man burbling out in a sea of incoherent hatred. You can see his words spurring on the basest nature of the white southern plebians from which he sprang, settling in them a vicious enmity towards their black brothers and sisters that would cause them to ignore the grave injustices being perpetrated against them by their patrician white fellows. Most of all, you can feel that scar tissue that was built up after Gettysburg and Appomatox and Shiloh begin to slowly crack open, exposing those tender wounds of ours to infection and disease and rot. There would be no healing there.
Despite the inevitable protestations of some of their neighboring states in the deep south, I think there is no question that the State of Mississippi is the most enduring legacy of the Confederacy. Sure, South Carolina can lay claim to being the first state to secede from the union and Alabama can hold tight to the knowledge that their state legislature still meets in the building that was once the Confederate Capitol, but they can’t quite compare with the sheer scope and volume of Mississippi’s rebel worship. South Carolina wants to offend some folks by continuing to fly the Confederate flag at their state capitol? Well, that just means Mississippi’s going to have to one up them and actually stick the stars and bars in the design of their own state flag. Alabama’s feeling pretty good because it named a community college after Jefferson Davis? Mississippi named an entire county after the son of a bitch. Hell, the nickname for the University of Mississippi’s sports teams is the Rebels and, until 2010, the mascot for the school was an antebellum plantation owner named “Colonel Reb”.
But all of those are just some of the cosmetic heirlooms of Mississippi’s Confederate past. Yes, they are￼ racially and culturally insensitive and, yes, they honor the legacies of some of the most oppressive bigots in our nation’s history, but at the end of the day they’re still largely symbolic. The Magnolia State’s true antebellum inheritance can be seen in the day to day lives of the majority of its nearly 3 million residents, who are still shouldering the burden of a white ruling class that has consistently thumbed their nose at President Lincoln’s words of warning by continuing to pile up tarnished wealth from the bondsman’s unrequited toil, even if the bondsman has been relabeled a sharecropper or a minimum-wage worker.
No matter which direction you go, the signs and symptoms of this perpetual oppression will make themselves readily apparent to you. Drive yourself southeast from Greenville to Gulfport or northwest from Clinton to Corinth—it doesn’t matter. You can drive in concentric circles around Jackson for all I care, because regardless of where you want to start off from or where you plan on going, the end product will be the same: poverty. With nearly 1 in 4 Mississippians living below the poverty line, the Magnolia State is far and away the most impoverished in America, besting the state with the 2nd largest percentage of impoverished residents by more than 3 percentage points. Mississippi can also lay claim to an unmatched ubiquity of poverty as well, as every one of Mississippi’s 82 counties—save DeSoto, Madison and Rankin Counties—has a poverty rate that is above the national average of 15.9%.
Of course, being the poorest state in the union, it should come as no surprise that Mississippi comes in dead last—or first, depending on how you look at it—in a slew of other unenviable categories, but I have to admit that it is still shocking to see just how much worse off Mississippians are then everyone else in the country. How bad is it? Well, Mississippi ranks last in median household income, per capita personal income, overall health outcomes,diabetes rates, obesity rates, average life expectancy, cardiovascular deaths, infant mortality, infants with low birthweight, teen pregnancy rate and high school graduation rates. Statistically speaking, Mississippi is the most downtrodden and depressing state in all of America. The only consolation they can glean from their collective misfortune is that the rest of the South is, to varying degrees, experiencing the same health, wealth and education disparities as they are. In fact, things are so bad in the South that the region is responsible for 11 of the 12 twelve states with the lowest life expectancies(2) and can point to only one state (Virginia) that has a median household income higher than the national average. I’m not positive on this one, but I’m pretty sure that dropping out of high school, having a baby when you’re 15, getting a meager paycheck and dying early isn’t what folks mean when they talk about preserving “the Southern way of life.”
(1) For those wondering where the 700,000 gallon number came from and want to nerd out, keep reading. If the average percentage of the human body that is blood is about 7% and the average Civil War soldier weighed 143 lbs, that would mean that the average Civil War soldier had roughly 10 lbs of blood in him. Now, if you know that there are 8.85 lbs in a gallon of blood, then you can figure out that 10 lbs of blood—or one soldier—is about 1.13 gallons Then, all you have to do is multiply those 1.13 gallons by the number of casualties in the Civil War, which was about 620,000, and you have the final figure of 700,600 gallons of blood.
(2) The abberant 12th state here is West Virginia, who is pretty well situated just above Mississippi as the 2nd worst in many of these metrics. West Virginia could be classified as part of a very loosely defined South, but for the most part it’s simply an Appalachian no man’s land, with no definitive association with folks on either side of the Mason-Dixon line.