Right after finals in June this year, The Free State of Jones came out in movie theaters. It stars Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Mahershala Ali, and tells the story of a white man, Newton Knight, who leads a counterrevolution during the Civil War. He argues that he will not fight for something, slavery, he does not believe in, and he defects from the confederate army into which he has been drafted and takes refuge with runaway slaves. As the war rages on, an increasing number of men also defect and join Knight in the swamplands of Mississippi, where it is very difficult to pursue them. Ultimately, Knight and his fellow defectors, along with a handful of runaway slaves, found the Free State of Jones County in Mississippi, a small, slave free, rebellious state in the south in the middle of the Civil War, a war the south was fighting to preserve the institution of slavery.
I am a history tutor here at The Bay Area Tutoring Centers, mostly because I am in sheer awe of history. In college I studied literature from around the world, but my favorite reading was always grounded in truth. Of course, stories are always grounded in someone’s version of some truth, no matter how abstract, but the best stories for me have always had some relationship to actual events, even if the relationship is a loose one. As a result, I was instantly attracted to this movie. When I found out that this movie was not only based on a true story, but was actually heavily researched and that great pains were taken to portray the struggle of Newton Knight accurately, I was determined not only to see this movie as soon as it came out, but to write about it here.
Why? You ask.
Why is it important for a tutoring center to cover a story that no history book bothers with?
The answer is precisely because no history book bothers with it.
Presumably, we learn history to see ourselves, to understand where we’ve been, who we were, who we are, and who we hope to be. Few would argue that it is unimportant for students in the US to understand US History. Fewer still would argue that the Civil War, its causes and consequences, is an unimportant piece of US History to understand. As such, how can we tell a story of the Civil War, how can we teach it in classrooms or in tutoring sessions, without teaching about the creation of a slave free state in the south? Put simply, we should not. I have been studying history for over a decade and I have never come across this story. We teach and write about Nat Turner’s Rebellion, about John Brown’s Raid, about Sherman’s March to the Sea, about the Battle of Gettysburg, about Reconstruction, about Post-Reconstruction, but nothing about a southern white man who founded a slave free state in the middle of the south.
Knight went on to spend the rest of his life with a runaway slave, with whom he had children, and the couple then even took in Knight’s estranged wife, who had left him when he defected, when she returned after the war penniless and desperate. During Reconstruction, the Reconstruction government put Knight in charge of defending Blacks’ rights in the south, a south that was violently hostile to them. Knight’s children then went on to further his legacy, and people in the Mississippi today either revere him or revile him for that legacy.
It is important for all students who learn about the Civil War to learn about men like Newton Knight, and the many, many men who joined him. There is a legacy in this country that teaches us that white people are slaveholders, that we are the devil, that even if we didn’t own slaves, we supported the institution, or at the very least, and in some ways the worst, turned a blind eye to it.
“Not our problem.”
It is important for our students to know that they do not have to see themselves, their ancestors that way. That they can look back and say, “I would have been Newton Knight.”
As Joseph Hosey, a forester in Jones County, Mississippi today says, “When you grow up in the South, you hear all the time about your ‘heritage,’ like it’s the greatest thing there is…When I hear that word, I think of grits and sweet tea, but mostly I think about slavery and racism, and it pains me. Newt Knight gives me something in my heritage, as a white Southerner, that I can feel proud about. We didn’t all go along with it.” (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-free-state-jones-180958111/?no-ist)
In this country so fraught with racial tension, when teachers and textbooks are teaching about slavery, the Civil War, Civil Rights, Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon B Johnson, Bobby Kennedy, and Rosa Parks, we should also be teaching about Newton Knight. He was a hero, and he stands as a role model of courage as much as redemption and reconstruction. As the Smithsonian article notes, reconstruction is a verb; we are always reconstructing our big, diverse, complex country, and we know that our children are the future reconstructors. We better equip them to do that reconstructing by allowing them to hear from a wide variety of voices from the past and by showing them complexity and contrast in what is often told as a one sided story. In US History, Newton Knight’s voice is one our kids should hear.