JACKSON — The book is called “A New History of Mississippi,” and a new approach is what Dennis Mitchell wanted when he wrote it.
The professor at Mississippi State University-Meridian casts a critical eye on the “Moonlight and Magnolias” school of Southern history, trying to communicate decades of recent scholarship to readers with a decided emphasis on the post-Civil War period.
The first general history of the state for adult readers in nearly 40 years, the book focuses on Mississippi’s central dilemma of race. It’s being adopted by some universities and could be influential for years.
“I felt like there was a real need for it because the last history for general readers was in 1976,” Mitchell said. “There’s been a huge mountain of scholarship about Mississippi published since then.”
The book is deeply informed by all those works. Mitchell said he had “thousands” of sticky notes on books, dissertations and theses that he used as he wrote to flag information he wanted to fold in. Much of that academic scholarship is hard to access for general readers, even those who patronize the best-stocked bookstores and public libraries.
More than half of the 593-page book, published by the University Press of Mississippi earlier this year, covers 1900 to present.
“If you stop and think about it, there’s been a lot of history since the Civil War,” Mitchell said.
Targeting general readers, though, the book isn’t footnoted and tries to account for the lives of regular people as well as political leaders.
“I felt liberated, in a way, to tell the story a little more freely and openly. It allowed a little better flow in writing.” Mitchell said of skipping footnotes.
Mitchell’s book downgrades some traditional pillars, such as L.Q.C. Lamar, the post-Civil War U.S. senator long acclaimed as a spokesman for sectional reconciliation. Lamar went on to serve as U.S. secretary of the interior and later became the only Mississippian to ever serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The book finds Lamar complicit in the violence of the 1875 state elections, which swept away Republican control of state government for more than a century and eventually led to the elimination of black voting in 1890. He writes that “old heroes” such as Lamar and James Z. George have “lost their luster in an age accepting racial equality as a given.”
“I think Lamar has gotten a pass for a long time,” Mitchell said. “He was the front man for the violence that the redeemers used to eliminate the black votes.”
The author says a critical look at the state’s past can help Mississippi move forward today.
“I thought that Mississippians weren’t going to progress until they come to terms with their past,” Mitchell said.
“People act on their ideas about the past.”
Mitchell closes his book on a positive note, saying “the civil rights movement freed all Mississippians — black and white — from an oppressive system that kept both races on the bottom of almost every national yardstick of progress.”
The author says he sees that progress in his own classes in Meridian, where he notes white students are descendants of a community that produced the Klansmen who killed James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in the summer of 1964 in Neshoba County. Today, he says white students are appalled at those acts.
“What gives me hope about not only the future but our misunderstood past is all the stories I could find of people who were able to cross the racial divide,” Mitchell said. “To me, they’re the best thing about our history.”