As Faulkner instructs, the past is never dead. But lingering Confederate sympathy among Mississippians – flaring in the wake of the University of Mississippi's diversity and inclusion report – proves that it is often misremembered.

I. The Sound and the Fury

In the final scene of The Sound and the Fury, Benjy Compson — William Faulkner’s so-called “idiot” man-child and erstwhile narrator — rides to the Jefferson town square in a horse-drawn wagon driven by his young black caretaker Luster.[1] As automobiles pass by (this chapter takes place in 1928) the pair come upon a sight that should be familiar to anyone who has traveled through the heart of a small Southern town:

They approached the square, where the Confederate soldier gazed with empty eyes beneath his marble hand in wind and weather. 

The statue described by Faulkner still lords over the courthouse square in Oxford, his “little postage stamp of native soil.”[2] Today, if you advance into the square’s roundabout, you’ll see that traffic moves in one direction: counterclockwise. But when Luster enters the loop, he jerks the reins to the left, guiding the wagon clockwise. Benjy’s tranquility immediately devolves into hysterical and inconsolable madness. His uncle Jason, standing nearby, hears the commotion and commandeers the wagon, giving Luster a vicious whack to the head in the process. Jason steers the horse back to the right and drives around the square counterclockwise. In an instant, Benjy returns to serenity. Everything is back in “its ordered place” and the novel ends.

That closing sequence has been on my mind since I saw the above picture of the neo-Confederate march in Oxford recently. Several dozen past-is-never-deaders turned up with their stars, bars, and fetishized sense of white victimhood to protest Chancellor Dan Jones’s plan to address, among other things, the University of Mississippi’s Confederate history. Many Oxonians made it clear that the demonstration was unwanted, but it was Mr. Faulkner’s enduring scene written some 85 years ago that damned them the most.

Here, after all, was another procession creeping through Oxford as the wheels of modernity whizzed past. Seeking the reestablishment of “order,” these grown adults communicated not with words but with a childlike tantrum. And in full view of the stoic infantryman perched above, they proceeded around the square counterclockwise — backward in time, not forward.

Benjy, literally, and the marchers, figuratively, are stuck in an incoherent time lapse between a fenced-in present and a romanticized past. It was this dissonant Lost Cause ideology that Faulkner intended the Compson family to allegorize when he wrote The Sound and the Fury in the late 1920s, two generations removed from Appomattox. [3]

Yet even Faulkner — who once said, “there is no such thing as was–only is” — might have strained to believe that the great-great-great-grandchildren of the Confederacy would engage in such reactionary bellering. Unfortunately, recent data suggest that the Lost Cause is the past that refuses to die.

II. The Unvanquished

When the Public Policy Polling firm recently asked Mississippi voters to pick sides in hypothetical Civil War rematch, 29 percent opted for the Confederacy. Only half said they would definitely side with the United States. The remainder were on the fence.

This isn’t a matter of oversampling the few remaining Ross Barnett voters. The South is rising again — at least in sentiment. Mississippians under the age of 30 are nearly as likely to support the Confederacy as the over-65 generation, and they’re twice as sympathetic as the 30 to 45 group.

Age
Source: Public Policy Polling, Mississippi Survey Results, July 15, 2014, accessible here.

On its face, this seems paradoxical. Mississippians under 30 have supported Barack Obama by large margins in the past two elections. Nationally, the millennial generation is marked by vocal support for equality and diversity with few reservations about interracial marriage or some of the other hangups of the past.

So how can progressive racial attitudes coexist with Confederate allegiance? The only logical explanation is that millennials consider the Confederacy conceptually distinct from slavery, allowing them to hold generally positive sentiment about the Old South without endorsing its most heinous aspect.

The evidence points to just such a distinction. When Pew surveyed attitudes on the Civil War in 2011, 60 percent of Americans under 30 believed that the Civil War’s central issue was states’ rights, not slavery — a higher proportion than any other age group. This perspective was pervasive: even 39 percent of African Americans thought states’ rights was the chief cause.

When slavery is reduced to an ancillary reason for war, attitudes about the conflict become a cipher for today’s political divisions over the size and role of the federal government. According to the PPP survey, the best predictor of Confederate support is political ideology: nearly every step to the right corresponds to a rise in Confederate sympathies. Among today’s political right wing, the Confederate States exist as a sort of counterfactual to what they perceive as an increasingly invasive U.S. government led by another president from Illinois they despise.

ConfIdeology
Source: Public Policy Polling

Reimagining the Civil War as a conflict of political philosophy can lead to a dangerous rationalization of slavery — or, at least, the motives of those who fought to perpetuate it. Often this occurs through the argument — unsupported by economic analysis — that the institution would have died out naturally, or the claim that its prominence has been overblown because the majority of Confederate soldiers were non-slaveholding whites.

That, too, is unsupported by historical fact. As far as the war’s participants were concerned, the Confederate States and the institution of slavery were one and the same. As if anticipating future generations’ questions, the framers of Mississippi’s secession ordinance did their best to erase all ambiguity about their intentions through this public declaration:

A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.

In the momentous step, which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.

The centrality of slavery to the Southern cause cannot be overstated. No judgment of American history has been quite as resounding as the defeat of the Confederacy, not just militarily but morally. It is the moment that modern civilization ruled unequivocally that it would not permit one human to own another. In a country founded on a rhetorical commitment to freedom, what change could be more epochal? Nevertheless, a breakdown in education has allowed dangerous misconceptions to fester among the rising generation.

The history of the Confederacy deserves to be taught accurately, if for no other reason than Mark Twain’s profound witticism that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Mississippians above all should know the horrible costs of that rhyme scheme. In the second decade after the Civil War, the antebellum social, political, and economic order was reinstituted through Jim Crow, tenant labor, and convict leasing. When local and federal efforts attempted to free black Mississippians from this second bondage, many whites again resorted to armed resistance. Once legal segregation was dismantled, a number of whites withdrew from cities and schools to recharter the old order through private institutions. Today, 50 years after Freedom Summer and 149 years after General Lee’s surrender, nearly every measure of income, education, and health in Mississippi is still stratified by race — and all Mississippians remain on the bottom nationally. The past is never dead, indeed.

III. Light in August

No institution bears greater responsibility for promulgating Confederate myth than the University of Mississippi. For most of its existence, Ole Miss has appointed itself as America’s leading repository for Confederate sympathies. It is the Lost Cause’s Fort Knox, within which all the traditional Confederate totems have been preserved: the battle flag and its colors; “Dixie”; “Rebels”; the plantation master archetype; his wife, the “Ol’ Miss”; monuments to the valor of Confederate dead; graves of those who died from wounds at Shiloh; the antebellum Greek Revival architectural style; and the names of prominent slaveowners and secessionists.

English: The Confederate Monument at the entra...
“…the Confederate solider gazed with empty eyes beneath his marble hand in wind and weather.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the wake of Chancellor Jones’s report, advocates and opponents alike have assumed that creating an inclusive and diverse university environment means purging all traces of these Confederate artifacts. That is not the case. They are part of our common heritage — mine as well as yours — because they represent the history of the institution, the state, and the country that we inherited from previous generations.

But heritage is not synonymous with honor, nor is it eternally binding. The present generation has as much right to create its own identity and values as previous generations did. The present’s only responsibility to the past is to remember it accurately — which is precisely what Chancellor Jones’s report prescribes:

We recommend that the University offer more history, putting the past into context, telling more of the story of Mississippi’s struggles with slavery, secession, segregation, and their aftermath.

To properly reckon with our past, we must begin with a simple statement: In 1848, the University of Mississippi was founded for the purpose of preserving slavery.

The Price of Defiance, Dr. Charles Eagles’s wonderful history of the desegregation of the university, recounts the thinking among state leaders at the time:

About 1840, for example, Gov. Alexander G. McNutt supported the establishment of the university because, as he said, “Those opposed to us in principle can not safely be entrusted with the education of our sons and daughters.” His successor, Albert Gallatin Brown, concurred that white Mississippians needed to stop “sending our youth abroad, where they sometimes contract bad habits [and] false prejudices against our home institutions and laws.” The governors had in mind slavery and states’ rights. The university’s founders and early supporters believed, therefore, that it ought to inculcate and perpetuate the political and cultural values of dominant slave-owning whites.

The university’s motto pro scientia et sapientia — on behalf of knowledge and wisdom — was routinely subverted to the material interest of slavery. Northerners, such as Chancellor F. A. P. Barnard, had to prove their pro-slavery bona fides to the trustees before they were hired, and even then, they remained targets of suspicion. In 1861, students pulled every book critical of slavery off the library shelves and burned them in the heart of campus. After secession, Confederate President Jefferson Davis himself pleaded with the students to continue their studies, but all 135 marched off to war instead. None ever returned.

Intellectual incest held the university in Benjy Compson’s counterclockwise gyrations for at least a century. The three chancellors after the war had each fought in or otherwise served the Confederate army, and the curriculum was geared toward instilling the Lost Cause verities: for instance, a “Confederate Memorial Prize” was awarded to the student with the best essay or speech defending secession or the conduct of Confederate leaders. In the 1920s, Chancellor Alfred Hume sought to fire a history professor on the grounds that the professor believed Robert E. Lee had committed treason. And in the university’s most infamous moment, in 1962, many preferred to shut it down — or worse, burn it down — rather than to allow a black man to penetrate the lily-white enclave.

Faulkner instructs us that there is no such thing as the past — only the present moment, which includes both past and future. Present-day Ole Miss is a microcosm of Faulkner’s theory. Little among those previous eras resembled my time at the university between 2006 and 2010, when I received an academic and social experience that would compare favorably to any in the country. But pre-1962 Ole Miss might sound more familiar to the three white students who hung a noose and Confederate flag on the statue of James Meredith this February. For black students, excluded for two-thirds of the school’s history, close interracial relationships and selective leadership opportunities are now available, but there are still many micro- and macro-level signals that they are seen as probationary members in a private club.

This present generation may choose to preserve certain symbols and institutions from previous eras; we may choose to discard others. It is merely the continuation of a natural evolutionary process that began at the university’s inception. But while Faulkner says that the past is part of the present, he also reminds us time only moves clockwise. Those held captive by the past are doomed to obsolescence in the future.


[1] If you haven’t read it, don’t worry — I haven’t spoiled anything. You might be better off if you read The Sound and the Fury’s four sections back-to-front anyway. Also, while the term “idiot” is now broadly pejorative, I use it to comply with the source text and much of the critical literature about the book.

[2] The soldier in the statue on the Oxford square has his hands on his rifle. The soldier in the near-identical statue in the Ole Miss Circle, however, is saluting. That’s the statue Faulkner seemed to have in mind for the town square of Jefferson.

[3] Mine is not the only way to interpret the Benjy character. Other prominent readings include allegories for slavery and Christ.

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