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“Mississippi’s Greatest Hour”: The Mississippi Civil War Centennial and Southern Resistance

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 19, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 95-112 | 10.1353/scu.2013.0023

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When Congress authorized the Civil War Centennial Commission to plan events and steer state and local organizations towards commemorating the war, Mississippi quickly organized a commission to encourage events within the state, due to its importance as the home state of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and as the site of one of the most important Confederate defeats, Vicksburg. Civil War monument, Vicksburg, Mississippi, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On Tuesday, March 28, 1961, the overcast clouds above Jackson, Mississippi, parted just around ten o’clock in the morning. Shortly after, drummers took to their instruments to send off the color guard at the beginning of the parade. Behind them, stretching for six miles, were three thousand men dressed as Confederate soldiers, collectively known as the “Mississippi Greys.” Cheers rang out when the Jackson Central High School Junior rotc unfurled the largest Confederate battle flag in the world, owned by the University of Mississippi. After the two-hour parade, Governor Ross Barnett, clad as a Confederate officer, performed as his 1861 counterpart in a dramatized reenactment of Mississippi’s secession convention. As five thousand Mississippians watched in the halls of the Old Capitol, Mississippi symbolically left the Union once again. Mississippi’s official commemoration of the centennial of the Civil War had begun.

The United States had been preparing for the Civil War centennial since 1957, when Congress authorized a commission, appropriately titled the Civil War Centennial Commission (cwcc ) to plan events and steer state and local organizations towards commemorating the war and especially the men involved. Mississippi quickly organized a state commission to plan and encourage events within the state, due to its importance as the home state of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and as the site of one of the most important Confederate defeats, Vicksburg.

From the outset, Mississippi’s commission had a clear goal, evinced by its name. The Mississippi Commission on the War Between the States (mcwbs ) was unapologetically pro-Confederate, though willing to acknowledge, however begrudgingly, the Union victory. But the commissioners did not wish to fight the war again; rather, the commissioners urged Mississippians to “honor dedication and devotion, courage and honor, integrity and faith” of the men who fought in the previous century. The mcwbs focused on the fighting generation’s character as necessary lessons for children and adults alike. The Civil War centennial was more than just recognition of a central event in American history. It was more than simple nostalgia for an imagined Old South. The numerous parades, the pageants and balls, and the multitude of reenactments and commemorations around the state collectively reinforced ideas of a moral fiber that would save the South from a host of “-isms”: liberalism, communism, socialism, pacifism, and atheism.

The story of the Civil War centennial commemoration has been a subject of recent inquiry by historians Robert J. Cook and David Blight. Cook studied the commemoration from a national standpoint in light of the Cold War; Blight examined the works of four prominent historians of the day. Jon Wiener analyzed the centennial events in the context of the Civil Rights Movement in addition to the Cold War. The national scope of these works causes them to miss a dominant theme from the Centennial that is best seen at the state and local level, particularly in Mississippi. The events from 1961 to 1963 in the Magnolia State shed light on how one generation of men, born before 1920, and who benefited from the rabid white supremacist rhetoric and policies of men like Governor James K. Vardaman, used the anniversary to impart similar anti–Civil Rights (and, by their own extension, anti-communist) values onto the next generation of Mississippians.

The Civil War Centennial did not create a new spirit of resistance for southerners, but it arrived at a critical moment. As returning veterans, often young, arrived home from Europe and the Pacific, they began making inroads in their communities as business leaders and politicians. Yet the four men who defined Mississippi’s Centennial period—Commission director Sidney Roebuck, professor Louis Dollarhide, Governor Ross Barnett, and Sons of Confederate Veterans (scv ) leader William D. McCain—came of age in a different era and...



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