Learn more about the Free State of Jones

FSOJ movie editionIt’s an exciting time for historians, especially as we get nearer to the opening of the film “Free State of Jones” on June 24th.  Part of the excitement has been generated by the marketing of the film (including during Game 7 of the NBA Finals!), but also the real sense that the history is being told as carefully as possible through the medium of film, which doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to telling “the true story.”

Below are some links that will assist you in learning more about the story behind the film Free State of Jones.

Author and historian Victoria Bynum’s interview about Jones County, the Civil War, the Knight Company and other interesting facts about the Free State of Jones is available on Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

The New York Times calls this a “film with footnotes,” a reference to the intensive research that went into the making of the movie.   Learn about the history in this extensive website that accompanies the movie.

There is an Audible version of the book available on Amazon.  Read about Mahershala Ali’s performance of the book.

You can also read the book!






Why I’m excited about the movie “The Free State of Jones”

My friend and fellow historian, Victoria Bynum talks here about The Free State of Jones, the movie that is based on her superb book. Buy the book, watch the film, and learn something new about the Civil War.

Renegade South

by Victoria Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War

Newton Knight

It’s been forty years since I first saw the name “Newton Knight” in the footnotes of a Civil War history textbook as I headed home for the holidays on a greyhound bus northbound from San Diego to Monterey, California. Since that moment, I have thought about, researched, written, and talked about, the meaning of Jones County, Mississippi’s insurrection to the Civil War Era that our nation still struggles to understand.

Since 1992, I’ve published numerous works on Southern Unionism, opposition to the Confederacy, and the associated Civil War themes of guerrilla networks, women’s participation in home front uprisings, collaboration across racial lines, and retaliatory violence by Confederate militia and home front vigilantes.

I recently had the pleasure to attend a preview screening of The Free State of Jones. The movie fsoj girlsunflinchingly depicts the…

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James Karales (1930–2002), Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965, 1965. Photographic print. Located in the James KaralesCollection, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke
University. Photograph © Estate of James Karales.

Selma: Hollywood’s Latest Foray into the Civil Rights Movement

 James Karales (1930–2002), Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965, 1965. Photographic print. Located in the James KaralesCollection, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University. Photograph © Estate of James Karales.

James Karales (1930–2002), Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965, 1965. Photographic print. Located in the James Karales Collection, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke
University. Photograph © Estate of James Karales.

The new civil rights film Selma opened on Christmas Day and by January 9th will appear in theaters across the country.  In Selma, director Ava DuVernay examines what the film’s official website describes as “the story of a movement [that] chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement.”

As previously discussed in this blog, the American South has consistently provided Hollywood with dramatic material since the dawn of film. For much of that history, movies have romanticized the Old South and often portrayed slavery as a benevolent institution. Last year’s Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, helped to right that ship by showing the brutality of slavery in all its forms.

Hollywood has also tried to “do” civil rights films before, though not very successfully.  Films like Mississippi Burning (1988) or The Long Walk Home (1990) presented a civil rights story where the heroes were white men and women.

This is not the case with Selma where DuVernay has focused her lens not only on well-known black heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., but on the real heroes of the movement–local people whose grassroots organizing and willingness to march and subject themselves to violence resulted in changes to our nation’s laws.

Early reviews of the film are either glowing (see the NYT review) or have criticized how the film misrepresented President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role.  Joseph Califano, LBJ’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965-1969 argues that the Selma march was Johnson’s idea and in his review of the film takes DuVernay’s version to task. DuVernay has responded with vehemence, tweeting that the suggestion that the Selma march was LBJ’s idea is “jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.”

As with any film that seeks to dramatize historical events, it’s always a good idea to read a good book to help you gain perspective.  For that, I recommend David J. Garrow’s Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Then see the film for yourself and decide.

Historista! A Groovy New History Blog

Just one of the weird ways that Hollywood engages history.
Just one of the weird ways that Hollywood engages history.

Yes, I said “groovy.”

There’s a new voice in the blogosphere and it belongs to one fine historian, Megan Kate Nelson. Dr. Nelson is the author of two books, Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (2012) and Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp (2005), and has just launched a new blog called Historista. Nelson’s blog will examine the “surprising, cool, and weird ways that people engage with history in everyday life.”

Followers of Pop South who have an interest in history and popular culture should definitely check it out.

For Whom The (Southern) Belle Tolls

The true southern belle from GWTW was Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, played by Olivia deHavilland
The true southern belle from GWTW was Melanie Hamilton Wilkes, played by Olivia deHavilland

It seems fitting that after posting a blog about pop culture’s southern gentleman that I should talk about his counterpart, the southern belle.  What follows is an edited version of an early blog I wrote for another site.

A few years ago TLC, the channel that still airs Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, brought us a show called Bama Belles.  It seems unlikely that “belle” is an appellation anyone would apply to women who don camouflage to hunt or are ready to start a bar fight. Still, the conscious decision by the show’s producers to make “belles” part of the show’s title offers an opportunity to consider the evolution of the term that is now used to describe the women on this show. (Update: Bama Belles was cancelled after only a few episodes.)

“Belle” was originally applied to white women of the southern planter class and a woman who was classified as such was as much a creation of antebellum sentimental literature as she was real.  During the nineteenth century, authors North and South placed her at the center of the plantation legend and idealized her as one who was as delicate as she was strong, and as feminine as she was a dominant figure of the plantation.  Novelists and playwrights of the twentieth century, too, have made the southern belle central characters in their narratives.  The most famous of these was Scarlett O’Hara, the protagonist in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 epic Gone with the Wind.  Scarlett, however, was more modern than her predecessors, which is one of the reasons women around the world found her appealing.

Debutantes in Charlotte, NC, 1951.
Debutantes in Charlotte, NC, 1951.

Mid-twentieth-century southern debutantes also donned the title of “belle.” No longer plantation mistresses, these belles were still members of the South’s white social elite. For its July 9, 1951 issue, Life magazine featured Charlotte, North Carolina, debutantes with the caption that they looked “as gracious as any ante-bellum belles,” a clear reference to their Old South antecedents.  Being a debutante or a pageant queen has often qualified southern women as belles, and no fewer than a dozen southern contestants were crowned Miss America between the 1950 and 1980, which in its own way helped to perpetuate the image of southern women as belles. Then, in the 1980s, debutante and pageant queen came together in Delta Burke’s portrayal of Suzanne Sugarbaker on television’s Designing Women.

Delta Burke's Suzanne Sugarbaker offered a modern take on southern belle
Delta Burke’s Suzanne Sugarbaker offered a modern take on southern belle

Over the last several years the term has been partially stripped of its “whites only” racial affiliation, illustrating how the term has evolved.  Some years ago, I was having a conversation with someone who referred to the students at Bennett College (a private, historically black liberal arts college for women in Greensboro, North Carolina) as “belles.”  Their student handbook is known as the “Bennett Belle Book,” their email is “Bellesmail,” and campus updates come in the form of “Belle Alerts.”  Admittedly, it was the first time I had heard the term applied to black women, but it made sense given the socially elite dimensions of the term.  It certainly applied to the fictional character Whitley Gilbert, an African American southern belle played by Jasmine Guy on the show A Different World (1987-1993) in a sitcom based on the fictional Hillman College.  The tradition of the black southern belle continues with the most recent addition to the cast of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, attorney Phaedra Parks.  She, too, is a self-proclaimed southern belle.  On the one hand she is modern in her approach to “belledom,” and yet she has more traditional belle credentials, such as her participation in beauty pageants and her membership in Atlanta’s Junior League.

Real Housewife of Atlanta Phaedra claims the title of southern belle, too.
Real Housewife of Atlanta Phaedra claims the title of southern belle, too.
Layla LaRue, drag performer from Texas.
Layla LaRue, drag performer from Texas.

Some folks might be surprised that men, too, can be belles. Throughout the South they exist in the form of female impersonators. In fact, there are numerous regional pageants whose competitions are just as fierce as those held for women.  I served as a guest judge for at least two such pageants in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, including one for “Miss Dixie,” and can vouch for the seriousness of the contestants to offer their best impression of the southern belle.

The one feature of the southern belle that seems to have remained consistent over time—regardless of race, class, or gender—is that it is largely a social performance.

Given that, the belle clearly tolls for anyone who’s interested in the part.


The American South at the Oscars

12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave

The American South has been the subject and setting for countless films over the years and many of them have been nominated for Best Picture, and more than a few have won the Oscar.  And this year is no exception. Among the nominees for Best Picture are “12 Years a Slave,” most of which is set in Louisiana, and “Dallas Buyers Club,” set in Texas. (Update: 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture)

While the 1930s was known for movies set in the Old South, the first motion picture set in the region to receive an Oscar nomination was “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” (1932) in which a wrongly-convicted James Allen (played by Paul Muni) serves time on a southern chain gang.  The next southern-based film to get an Oscar nomination was “Jezebel” (1938), starring Bette Davis who won the Oscar for Best Actress. Set in Louisiana, it is one of the better films in the genre of the plantation legend, because of its stars, but it still employs African Americans in stereotypical roles. One year later, in 1939, “Gone with the Wind” (GWTW) surpassed all previous films of its kind and not only won Oscar for Best Picture, it was truly one of the first films to become a blockbuster, and its representation of the South shaped popular perceptions of the region for decades to come.

Gone with the Wind

Oscar-nominated films set in the American South after GWTW include the following:

*Denotes winner of Best Picture

The Little Foxes (1941)
The Yearling (1946)
All the King’s Men (1949)*
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
The Defiant Ones (1958)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)*
Midnight Cowboy (1969)*  (included because of Jon Voight’s character Joe Buck)
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Deliverance (1972)
Sounder (1972)
Nashville (1975)
Norma Rae (1979)
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
The Big Chill (1983)
Tender Mercies (1983)
A Soldier’s Story (1984)
Places in the Heart (1984)
The Color Purple (1985)
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)*
JFK (1991)
The Prince of Tides (1991)
Forrest Gump (1994)*
The Green Mile (1999)
Ray (2004)
Capote (2005)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Blind Side (2009)
Winter’s Bone (2010)
The Help (2011)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Django Unchained (2012)
12 Years a Slave (2013)*
Dallas Buyers Club

Back in 1938, German director Kurt Neumann said that the South was “one of the best subjects Hollywood has ever had for sustained interest,” adding “we are just beginning to understand the South.” At the time, Hollywood was still making films focused on the Old South. While films with a southern setting continue to draw on regional stereotypes, not all of them do. And yet even in 2014, it seems fair to conclude that Hollywood is still “just beginning to understand the South.”