Free State of Jones

Ideas and Issues
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May 21, 2021

New Orleans

Now that the US and some other countries are increasingly opening up, shots in arm, masks dangling from their ears, we are hearing one pity-party story after another from some of the bright lights about how they spent time in quarantine or lockdown. It’s not pretty. There are endless tales of pandemic pounds, sweat pant and pajama reveries, and constant streaming of everything from reality shows to god knows. I’m not saying we were immune. We have become connoisseurs of UK, Scandinavian, Icelandic, French, and general Euro crime procedurals. We’ve learned slang from a host of countries, that we hope sooner or later to be able to use, even realizing that much of it is inappropriate. You know how it goes, we were knackered, so it was Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO, if we could figure out how to get it on the telly.

We did watch one movie that caught us by surprise in both an entertaining and educational way called the Free State of Jones, unknown to us previously, but from a 2016 release starring Matthew McConaughey as the principal character Newton Knight.

The core of the story, based in some form or fashion on history, is that Knight, a dirt farmer, deserted the Confederate Army after one of the bloody battles where a relative was killed, and returned home to Jones County, Mississippi to find property seized and family exploited with his neighbors, both black and white, in the same shape. Knight in reality was a mountain of a man for his time at six feet five inches and essentially assembled a guerilla force of his neighbors, deserters, the dispossessed, and the discontented in the swamplands unreachable by most regular armies. The area had been a sanctuary for runaway slaves for some time. You can imagine that there was a lot of action both in the movie and in fact. Knight and his gang did attack the county courthouse, raise a flag to the Free State of Jones, sweep through and control a number of counties in that area of Mississippi, and plead, unsuccessfully, to Union forces and generals for additional support to keep up their rebellion against the Confederacy. The movie makes no secret of the fact that Knight never left his wife but also took up with a former slave as well. Quite the flick!

Interested in finding out the truth behind all of this, the reality was even more interesting than the movie, according to a piece in The Smithsonian. Knight lived through this conflagration after the civil war and continue to scratch out a living in Soso, Mississippi in a mixed-race community with both of his families where he had nine children with his wife and another five with Rachel, the daughter of his grandfather’s slave, with both of his families living on his 160-acre farm. One person interviewed said the local community, now genuflecting before their own Confederate monuments, found it easier to forgive Knight for the skill and success of his rebellion, than for the mixed-race community he and his families founded.

It turns out that you just can’t make this stuff up. America, what a country of contradictions and stories known and hidden, often under our noses.


Listen to “My Cleveland Heart,” the latest single from Jackson Browne, courtesy of KABF radio.