In the early 1960s, Mississippi and the rest of the nation commemorated the centennial of the American Civil War. Coming in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the acrimonious civil rights struggle at home, the occasion appeared destined to resonate with contested meanings and disputed legacies. In Mississippi it coincided with the rise to power of Ross Barnett and other massive resistance leaders, setting the stage for a potential orgy of race-driven propaganda. Indeed, Barnett used the centennial to publicize his views about the “southern way of life,” emboldening support for his oppositionist stance to integration. One of the state’s largest centennial events, the March 1961 celebration of Mississippi’s secession from the Union, featured Barnett, costumed as a Confederate general, marching at the head of several thousand similarly dressed “Mississippi Greys” in downtown Jackson. Tens of thousands of spectators roared to the sounds of “Dixie” and cheered the University of Mississippi’s half-block-long Confederate battle flag.
Yet Barnett inadvertently undercut the unifying power of the centennial in the minds of many white Mississippians by pressing forward with a largely economic agenda for the celebration. Gov. James P. Coleman, Barnett’s predecessor, had envisioned a relatively conservative commemoration and looked to the state’s heritage organizations and historical community to shape a respectful remembrance. Among the leaders were Charlotte Capers, head of the Department of Archives and History; Frank Everett, a Vicksburg attorney and amateur historian who chaired the Mississippi Commission on the War between the States; and William Winter, state tax collector, future governor, and like Everett a former president of the Mississippi Historical Society. Edwin Bearss, a renowned Civil War historian at the Vicksburg National Military Park, added to the decorous atmosphere. Barnett, however, unceremoniously dumped this prestigious assemblage once he came into office, stacking the commission with his friends and political associates. Only three of Coleman’s original sixteen appointees survived the purge, among them Sidney Roebuck, a former chair of the state highway commission and a longtime tourism promoter, whom Barnett elevated to the position of executive director. New members included the mayors of Mississippi’s two largest tourist destinations, John Holland of Vicksburg, who was elected chair of the reorganized group, and Laz Quave of Biloxi. Roebuck and Holland worked with the state’s leading advertising professional, George Godwin, to develop an economic theme for the centennial that devalued its propaganda potential at home while increasing its usefulness as a marketing tool across the nation.
Barnett so prioritized economic development that Walter Lord observed, “Whatever might be said of Ross Barnett on racial matters, he was a bear on getting business, and his administration featured an all-out drive to bring new industry into the state.” The economic development package that Barnett presented to the legislature included funding for the centennial, and Natchez, Vicksburg, and most of the other towns where he proposed staging large-scale events were already major tourist draws. However, leaders in Corinth, Port Gibson, Holly Springs, Columbus, and other towns sought to use the free publicity and advertising provided by the centennial to jump-start their nascent tourism industries.
White Mississippians ultimately found themselves consumed by more pressing issues such as the riot that accompanied James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which occurred almost back-to-back in September–October 1962. Writing to Barnett in May 1963, Roebuck remarked that interest in state centennial events was waning as a consequence of the “turmoil created by the Kennedy Administration, with the help of the [civil rights] agitators, the Cubans, and the Russians.” In the end, the centennial showed the Confederacy’s diffuse legacy in Mississippi, as the state sought a way out of its crushing poverty while still clinging to old traditions.
- John E. Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (1992)
- Robert Cook, Journal of Southern History (November 2002)
- Robert Cook, Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961–1965 (2007)
- Michael G. Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991)
- Sally Leigh McWhite, “Echoes of the Lost Cause: Civil War Reverberations in Mississippi from 1865 to 2001” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2002)
- James Matthew Reonas, “Mississippi’s Civil War Centennial: Heritage and Tourism in the Emerging South” (master’s thesis, Louisiana State University, 2000)
- US Civil War Centennial Commission, The Civil War Centennial: A Report to the Congress (1968)