By Doyne Phillips, Managing Editor for Southern Writers Magazine
William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Nothing could be truer especially in the South. And because of that there are always stories that continue and grow as they go. The Free State of Jones is just such a story. With an upcoming movie in June starring Matthew McConaughey I expect it will grow even further.
During the Civil War some of the citizens of Jones County Mississippi were against slavery, succession and the Confederacy. One reason was Jones County had the smallest population of slaves. As the men of the county went off to fight with the Confederacy their beliefs made it easier to see reasons to desert and many did. One in particular was Newt Knight. Knight deserted after the Battle of Corinth and returned to Jones County. There he joined with fellow deserters and former slaves to fight against the Southern Army that was taking their livelihood away from them with taxes and thievery. Knight and a troop of 1,000 men eventually became powerful enough to run most of the Confederates out of the county and temporarily hoisted the Union Flag at the county courthouse in Ellisville. They then declared Jones County as the Free State of Jones.
Knight went on to have a long life with 7 children by his white wife and 5 children by a slave that had once been owned by his grandfather. The children finding it hard to find mates ended up marrying each other which led to interracial marriages and a small settlement of Soso MS which a majority of citizens were biracial. With the common thinking of the South at that time and the “one drop rule” there was a lot of animosity towards Knight and his descendants.
Knight was a hero to some but to the local Confederates, Knight and the notorious Jones County was shameful. So in 1865 they renamed the county Davis County after Jefferson Davis and County seat of was renamed Leesville after General Robert E. Lee. In later years there was a vote and it was overturned and the names returned. Knight’s status as hero or traitor ebbs and flows with history and the current sway of social standards. For local History Professor Wyatt Moulds, a direct descendant of Newt Knight’s grandfather, the movie is an idea whose time has come. As for history I have always been fond of the idea that the truth and history are close relatives but not identical twins.
As for the saga’s growth I expect the animosity and hero worship of Knight will continue. I am reminded of the split decision on the book and movie The Help. Some saw it as fairly accurate and others just a polluted version of an outsider. The beauty of it all is the South has many stories that have yet to be told due to the historical and social opinions that have existed. But as Bob Dylan said, “These times they are a changing.”