Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Mississippi's Free State of Jones | MPB

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- NARRATOR: The Free State of Jones.

Legend holds that this sparsely populated region

of Mississippi actually seceded from the Confederacy

during the Civil War.

But is this historical fact, or local myth?

And the leader of the Free State,

Newton Knight.

Was he a coward, a deserter, a traitor to the South

who became a murdering bandit?

Or was he a man of courage, fighting for justice

against an oppressive government?

What really happened more than a century ago,

deep in the Piney Woods of Mississippi?

- Cotton in 1860 was the nation's

most valuable export item,

and Mississippi was the nation's leading cotton producer,

so it was a wealthy, wealthy state.

But Jones County did not produce that much cotton.

It had the smallest slave population

of any county in Mississippi.

- They don't really own a lot of slaves here,

because that's not what these people were about,

for the most part.

Most of them were small farmers with no slaves.

Probably 80% of them, the farmers in Jones County

didn't own one single slave.

- These are really what I call the yeoman farmer class,

those who are trying to ascend up the economic ladder.

They were not going to have a huge cotton plantation.

- NARRATOR: The poor and working class farm families

of Jones County have little interest in growing cotton.

But the cotton plantation owners

and business leaders of Mississippi do.

Any threat to their slave-based economy will call

for a decisive response.

- Mississippi Fire-eater politicians

hated Abraham Lincoln.

So when he's elected president in the fall of 1860,

Mississippi Governor John Pettis called

for a Secession Convention in Jackson.

- NARRATOR: Jones County elected a pro-union,

anti-secession delegate for the convention.

But during the convention, the delegate

betrayed his constituents, voting with the majority

to secede from the Union.

- They supposedly they burned him in effigy in Ellisville

'cause the people weren't too happy about the fact

that he votes for it, and in return, he got a job

in the Confederate government as a provost marshal

over Jones county, which was handy

because he didn't have to go to the front.

- Once Mississippi seceded, it had to begin

mobilizing for war, and Initially there was

a great outpouring of enthusiasm.

More men volunteered to serve than the state needed.

And many, many men from Jones County did go off,

and they fought in the Confederate military.

But in the course of the war, Jones County became

most famous for Newton Knight and his company

of Confederate deserters, who went on to fight

a guerrilla war against Confederate officials.

- Newt Knight apparently joined willingly.

He is listed as a volunteer and as a private.

He served very well, I think, during the first year,

and then he was released from service

by one of the generals.

And there's no record of exactly why.

It may have been because his father died.

- NARRATOR: Newt Knight's release doesn't last long.

As casualties mount, the Confederate Congress passes

a Conscription Act in 1862, drafting thousands

of Southern men between the ages of 18 and 35

for military service.

- The draft was incredibly unpopular.

To many Southerners, especially people who accepted

the states' rights ideology, or the states' rights doctrine,

it seemed as if they had replaced one tyrannical

national government with another.

- A lot of the people in the community were sort of like,

we're not sure who the enemy is;

they told us that it was the North,

that it was the Yankees, but the Confederates -

conscript officers are coming and getting our sons.

Some of them are not even of age.

Houses were burned.

Barns were burned.

It was a vicious conscription act.

- NEWT: "Then next thing we know

they were conscripting us.

They just come around with a squad of soldiers

'n' took you."

- Newt only agreed to go in as a medic.

Everyone agreed that he went in as a medic.

Of course, when you get at the front lines

and they need another man with a rifle,

then you become a front line soldier.

- NARRATOR: Newt Knight is promoted to sergeant

and takes part in the bloody Battle of Corinth.

The Confederates are defeated, and even veteran soldiers

are shocked by the carnage they have witnessed.

- After Corinth fell, many men in Knight's company

simply concluded that the war couldn't be won,

or that the cost of continuing the war was too great to bear,

and they went back to Jones County.

- NARRATOR: Newt Knight and others are further

disillusioned when the Confederate Congress passes

the 20 slave law, exempting anyone who owns 20 slaves

from military service.

- NEWT: "Jasper Collins was a close friend of mine.

'This law, ' he says to me,

'makes it a rich man's war and a poor man's fight.

I'm through.'

He threw down his gun and started home.

Well, I felt the same way about it.

So I started back home.

I felt like if they had a right to conscript me

when I didn't want to fight the Union,

I had a right to quit when I got ready."

- For poor people, people who didn't own 20 slaves,

it seemed as if they were fighting to protect somebody

else's property, that they were being asked

to bear a disproportionate burden.

- Guys like Newt felt like, from the beginning,

that they were sort of being railroaded into this war.

And a lot of these guys started to realize

a couple of things: everyone with any political pull,

any local office, or anybody that the president

said make exempt, they were exempt from the fighting.

So that left the poor white yeomen farmers

to be the soldiers that are gonna fight and die.

And they start to realize, in fact,

Newt Knight began to realize that they were slaves.

We're not picking the cotton, but we're the ones

that are gonna go die, so that they can keep the slaves

picking the cotton and we really don't want to do that.

And so a lot of them begin to desert.

Thousands of them are deserting.

- Nobody, basically for the first year of when

desertion started, objected to it much.

It was as the war went on efforts to capture deserters

and punish them became a real goal of the Confederacy,

because they were just loosing so many.

- NARRATOR: In early 1863, Newt Knight is again

seized by Confederate forces.

- We know that he was tortured which probably means

39 lashes like they would give a slave.

His comrades said he was treated very cruelly.

He was put in chains and he was under arrest

during the Vicksburg campaign.

- NARRATOR: But Newt Knight deserts again,

setting out for Jones County.

He will never be re-arrested.

A few weeks later, the strategic port city of Vicksburg falls.

The tide of the war has clearly turned.

Desertion rates increase.

All across the South, Confederate military

authorities confiscate household goods,

livestock, and produce.

Thousands of Confederate soldiers return home

and find their families literally starving.

Facing such hardship, Serena Knight, Newt's wife,

flees with their children to her relatives in Georgia.

Newt Knight returns to find an empty home.

- I believe that Newt Knight came to hate the Confederacy

and the Confederacy really hated

deserters like Newt Knight.

To the Confederacy, he was a traitor,

but he left them to take care of his family.

The Confederates were robbing our people, his wife.

They were robbing other families of everything they had:

cloth, food, and leaving children behind

with nothing to eat.

I can't see how you can call that being a traitor.

He went home to take care of the families

that they had robbed.

- NEWT: "We saw we had to fight.

So we organized this company

and the boys elected me captain."

- When we look at the Civil War and we look

at the Knight Band there, it's interesting to trace

the evolution of their opposition to the Confederacy.

Many men would desert just to get a rest,

go back and plant crops, make sure their families were okay

then they'd go on back.

But these men who joined the Knight Band,

part of the reason why they formed the band

was because they were determined they were

not going to go back into the Confederacy.

That was it.

In fact, they were gonna fight against the Confederacy.

- Knight's Company...

many different interpretations about

what motivated Knight's men to fight.

Some have argued that Knight was simply

a desperado, an opportunist.

He was going to take advantage of wartime chaos

to settle old scores, to enrich himself and his followers.

Others have argued that he was a kind of Robin Hood figure.

That Knight was a champion of poor yeoman farmers

who were struggling to resist the power

of Mississippi's wealthy slaveholders.

Still others have argued that he was a dyed-in-the-wool

Unionist who had opposed secession from the beginning

and he was fighting the campaign

to free Jones County from Confederate rule.

- He, along with Jasper Collins,

formed this gang of at least a hundred men

and that's what they would do.

They would hide out and they would attack supply trains

and take their food and whatever they could get

back to the people in the communities,

because they were really destitute.

- They attacked warehouses

where Confederate officials were storing food.

They attacked tax collectors.

They attacked people who were sent into Jones County

to round-up deserters.

On at least two different occasions,

Confederate military sent men into Jones County

in an attempt crush Knight and his company.

- At a certain point when the desertion levels had gotten

pretty high in Jones county, a man named Amos McLemore,

he was a major for the Confederate army,

was sent in to gather up deserters and arrest them.

And he was taking dinner at the home of Amos Deason,

in what is now known as the Deason House,

and on that night, Newt Knight and two of his companions--

this has never been proven, but is generally accepted even

by Newt Knight's own son-- they murdered Amos McLemore

rather than risk being hauled in as deserters.


- Newt Knight has always been blamed for the "murder"

of McLemore, but he was never charged with a crime.

They don't know who shot McLemore

and that's why they didn't charge Newt Knight with a crime.

- NARRATOR: In the spring of 1864,

Confederate Colonel Robert Lowery leads two regiments

of infantry and 200 cavalrymen into Jones County

to pursue and execute members of the Knight Company.

- NEWT: "He was rough beyond reason.

He hanged some of my company he had no right to hang."

- NARRATOR: Two teenage boys

from Knight's Company are hanged.

Today, a marker in Jones County recognizes them

for being unjustly killed for their honest convictions.

Despite never finding Newt Knight

and never capturing any of his inner circle,

Lowery proclaims his expedition a success,

and withdraws his men from Jones County,

never to return.

- The Confederates felt justified in their rebellion

against the United States, but they were not about

to tolerate a rebellion within the Confederacy.

They hated the very idea of Newt Knight

and the Free State of Jones.

General Leonidas Polk wrote President Jefferson Davis,

explaining to him that these southern Yankees

had taken over this part of the state.

Because the Knight Company had raised the United States flag

over the courthouse in Ellisville.

They've overturned the Confederate government there.

The Confederate officials were on the run.

The tax collectors were on the run.

The sheriff was gone.

In effect, they had seceded from the Confederacy because

it was an independent government now.

- I don't see a stand taken against all authority.

I see a choice made here, that the Confederacy

is not the legitimate government.

It is destroying us, destroying our lives,

and they do support the US government,

and they said so.

And I think it's important historically to recognize that.

- NARRATOR: Unlike other renegade bands of deserters,

Knight and his men accept and support runaway slaves.

One of these was Rachel,

a former slave of Newt's grandfather.

- She became Newt Knight's ally during the war,

and then later, of course, entered into a relationship

with him, had several children by Newt Knight.

And that's where the two stories,

the one story of an insurrection,

and the other story of a mixed-race community,

that's where they converge.

- There was no color line for Newt,

especially after the war.

We see that because he's wide open with this relationship

and poses for pictures, proudly.

You can see them in their Sunday finest,

with one of his grandsons, in fact.

And it's just amazing to see that at a time

when that wasn't popular in Mississippi at all.

And he does it anyway.

When did the Civil War end?

Some would say it's still not over

because there's still a lot of work to be done.

There's still a lot of healin' that needs to come.

What we do know is it doesn't end in 1865

like it says in the books

because there's a shooting war that begins as soon as

the war between the North and the South ends.

That was a war of violence against unionists,

white unionists, and against African Americans.

- NARRATOR: In order to re-create the life they enjoyed,

the all-white Mississippi legislature passes into law

the so-called Black Codes,

denying the civil rights of newly freed slaves.

- What the black codes essentially do is it sets up

a state for black people and white Southerners

that most closely resembles slavery.

So for instance, black unemployment is criminalized,

because you were considered a vagrant.

Black and white people cannot marry.

And so there are a number of slave codes

that now become black codes and Mississippi is the first state

to enact it in November 1865.

- NARRATOR: With Mississippi and other former Confederate states

unwilling to respect African Americans as full citizens,

the period of radical Reconstruction begins.

Union troops continue to occupy Southern states

to maintain order.

High-ranking Union officers are appointed

as military governors in each state.

Mississippi's governor was Adelbert Ames.

- He bought into the idea of equality and social justice

in Mississippi and he fought for that

and he used people like Newt, native white Mississippians,

who were on the ground in different parts of the state

to try to help him do that.

- You really have an effort going on to restructure

southern society, to grant citizenship rights--

not just freedom, but citizenship rights--

to former slaves,

and Newt Knight appears to be a part of that.

He was immediately given political appointment.

He was a relief commissioner in 1865,

and as relief commissioner, he had several orders

coming to him from northern Union officers

who were stationed in Mississippi.

- They're giving orders to him to do things like

rescue slave children from families

who are not admitting that slavery is over,

to help destitute women, to help poor people in general,

distribute grain, bacon, food

to people that were starving.

After the war the landscape was pretty barren

because the farms were in such bad shape.

- NARRATOR: But in the mid-1870s,

the Reconstruction period comes to an end,

and so do the political and social reforms

that Reconstruction brought.

Soon many of Mississippi's pre-civil war leaders

return to power.

The reforms meant to give freed slaves

all the rights of citizenship are quickly rolled back.

Newt Knight recognizes what these events mean

for himself and his family.

- He deeds 160 acres of land to his African-American wife,

Rachel, which was really unprecedented in those days

because he knew that this tide was changing and he knew

that he might be killed because there were

all kinds of assassination attempts against him.

- Because of his mixed race family,

I think Newt Knight moved out of politics.

He crossed the color line.

He shocked society by doing it openly.

And again, in line with this personality that said,

"If I'm gonna do it, then it's gonna be alright.

I'm gonna do it openly."

- He retreated to the hilltop farm,

which is a beautiful, beautiful ridge of land

with a creek behind it

and an awesome view of the setting sun.

- ANNA: "After emancipation, my grandmother

and her family moved from the old slave plantation

in Jones County to Jasper County.

They went with one of the younger Knights

who did not believe in slavery."

- NARRATOR: So reads a passage from Mississippi Girl,

the 1952 autobiography of Newt's daughter, Anna Knight.

- Newt Knight himself was part of the creation

of a public school system around 1870.

And when he tried to send his mixed-race children

to the local public school that was being established,

he was told his children could not attend there

because they were mixed race.

- NARRATOR: Unable to find a school in her area,

Anna Knight travels to Chattanooga, Tennessee,

where she will attend school and live with

a missionary couple from the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

- And they just took her in and tried to get her an education,

but the school where she went to

they wouldn't accept her.

- Other members of the school complained

that they were not gonna have their children

attending school with someone

who was really black, because this is segregation.

And so the Seventh Day Adventist Church itself

took and privately educated her

and still continued to support her.

- NARRATOR: Anna later adopts the Seventh Day Adventist faith,

becomes a nurse, and upon graduation in 1898,

travels to India as a medical missionary.

- And she came back to this area

to start her school in Gitano, near Gitano,

and that was a school that Newt helped her build--

her uncles helped her to build--

so that the children, the mixed race children

in the community there could go to school.

She did a lot for this community,

she did a lot for her people here.

A lot for this community.

- And not only here, she went further in Mississippi

and different areas: Sumrall where there was family.

She taught her sister a lot

and her sister kinda picked up when she left.

- NARRATOR: After training her sister, Grace,

to teach in the local school,

Anna Knight moves on establishing schools

across the South.

- Newt believed in helping people

no matter who they were.

If Anna wanted to get an education,

he supported her in whatever she wanted to do.

If she wanted to come back here

and start a school for the people in the community,

he supported her.

He said, "I support you in whatever you do

because it's for the good of the people."

- NARRATOR: In February of 1922,

Newt Knight dies.

He is buried near Rachel, beneath a simple stone

that reads, "He lived for others."

- After Newt passed, they lost his protection.

As long as he was the family patriarch,

nobody really messed with 'em, with the families.

But once he died, they didn't quite feel safe.

They had a hard time.

My grandfather's brother had

a very successful store that he ran

and they had to pick up and leave all that.

They got run out of Jasper County because they,

as my grandfather would say, they forgot their place.

And they had to leave.

They started leaving Mississippi to find jobs,

and they had a pretty good rudimentary education.

They were able to go off, as whites,

and get good jobs that they would not have been able

to get if they had gone and said they were black.

- During that time, it's just the way it was.

That's just the way it was.

The lighter you married, the better off you would be

in that society at that time.

I don't know.

It's changed, and then it has not changed.

And it's not only in Mississippi,

this is across country.

I've lived all over the United States just about,

and it's just about the same.

- NARRATOR: In 1948, Davis Knight,

the great grandson of Newt and Rachel,

is arrested, tried, and convicted

for marrying outside his race.

- It wasn't uncommon for this area

for the descendants of Newt Knight.

They look just like any other white person.

But you know there was always that 1/8th rule.

and so they tended to marry white or cousins or whatever,

in order to try to marry this out.

And I think that's a lot of what the Davis Knight Trial was,

to figure out whether or not he was black or white.

That's what they were trying to do.

- It's hard for people to understand it.

It's very difficult to look like you're white

and you go around saying, "I'm black."

And people looking at you like,

"What do you mean?"

And as a child when I was comin' with my blue eyes

and straight hair like I have,

people would ask me, "What are you?"

If a white person made a mistake thinkin' I was white

and then they found out I wasn't,

they would get upset.

And I could never figure that out.

It's not my fault.

I didn't do it.

It's not easy.

Unless you live in a community like where I lived

where there were a lot of people that looked like me.

Everybody in the communities was related:

black, white, green, or purple.

They were all related.

- Yes, everybody's related.

- The mentality of most of the people here

who know about the Knights, the white Knights,

the black Knights, and the half-white Knights.

There's three sets of Knights here.

And you start talkin' and they say,

the older people say, "Just leave it alone."

They don't want you to know.

- But this new millennium generation,

it's a little different now.

And if we can go on Facebook,

if you go on the descendants of Newt Knight on Facebook,

you see all colors on there.

And they always say, "We're all related,

we are family."

- All related.

All related.

- When I was going to school at Soso Elementary,

I was on the basketball team

and we won the state championship.

And later on, I was just going through my pictures,

it was just two years ago,

and I got to reading the names under the thing.

I was like the Knights, the Crosbys the Agees.

And then I went online and I started tracking who they were

and I was like, "I'm related to these!"

And then I got to looking a little further down

and we were all related.

I got in contact with three or four of 'em

and they said, "Yeah!

I've always known we were related."

And I was like, "Well why didn't you tell me we were related?"

And she said they couldn't tell me

because the African-American side of the Knights

were not allowed to tell us for some reason.

I don't know if it was just the era we lived in

and us not knowing, it just made me mad.

It really did because I felt close to them.

I had this sense of family with all my classmates

and it was a family and I didn't know it.

- I have seen many students come through a system

of education in history where they were transformed by it.

They were changed.

Many of them said, "You know, we always thought

Newt Knight was a traitor and that he did awful things."

There are new generations that are looking at Newt Knight

with new eyes and that takes education

and that takes an understanding of history.

- I feel a whole lot better knowin' my past

than not knowin'.

It really brings me peace and it gives me strength

because they had such a struggle.

And I think knowin' that what they had to go through,

things that I have to deal with from day to day

or in my life, I know that I can do it too.

- Sometimes our family reunions are like a beautiful rainbow,

all shades of color just floating in the sky.

Yes, we are a part of Newton Knight's actions,

but it makes me proud to be a part of this historical

and controversial family no matter where it leads.

Yes, our family tree branches are very complex.

It does not matter which way the branches of the tree extend,

it is always reaching upward and outward

gathering in all to form one giant tree.

- Newt Knight is like a Rorschach Test,

you know the psychological test where

what do you see when you look at this picture.

When people look at Newt Knight,

whatever it is that they care most about,

is who Newt Knight becomes.

Whether they want to be inspired by him.

Whether they want to censure him.

Whether they think he's the most noble person

who ever came along and was a world saver.

Or whether they see him as the scourge of the South.

Newt Knight's their man and we would've had to invent him

if he had not lived.

- But who really knows the truth.

You weren't there.

- It's according to what you believe.

We knew what he did for us.

That's why we always all have most of the land in this area

is because he left it to his children,

and in turn it was left to us.

And so we keep on passing it down.

So he took care of both sides of his family.

Not only us, but the other side of his family too.

We just can't claim him all ourselves,

but he did take care of us.

The Description of Mississippi's Free State of Jones | MPB