‘Free State of Jones’ provides lesson in community action

Complete the Circle
By George Evans
This week I had an unusual movie experience. I went to see the “Free State of Jones” with Matthew McConaughey. It was a great movie. It made me wrestle with many feelings I have harbored for years. It solidified my current thinking and gave me some renewed hope that we can do better if we only commit to it.
I grew up in Vicksburg  and my predecessors were the victims of a brutal siege which terminated with civilians and soldiers eating dogs and cats to ward off starvation. Surrender of the city on July 4, 1863, after repelling numerous attacks by the armies of Generals Grant and Sherman, was the stuff of lore and stories from a young age emphasized by the surrounding National Military Park, the main roads of which were Union Avenue and Confederate Avenue.
As liberal and progressive as I have become in the ensuing years, there is still a small twinge of pain and hurt when I hear the South maligned. And then I look at the reality of slavery and its aftermath, lynchings, kluckers, Jim Crow and segregation and understanding that the institution of slavery was the cause of the Civil War and its awful carnage and slaughter I know that Biblical justice (Old and New Testament) mandate moving forward toward building a better South and a better U.S.A.
Free State of Jones helps remove the twinges of Old South romanticism so easy to embrace if one is white and rich as were the planters and slave holders. Cotton was like gold and slave labor made it that. Slavery also frequently gave even poor whites (and these were the great majority) a feeling of superiority toward someone.  Sin plays with us in some strange ways. Newt Knight of Jones County, Mississippi, deserts from the Confederate Army after the brutal battle of Corinth as the result of witnessing a very young kinsman being killed.
He goes back home to bury the youngster and gradually concludes that it makes no sense for poor whites who own no slaves to fight the battles for slave holders. As a deserter he is in the same class as a runaway slave and this shapes the movie. He joins up with a number of runaways and they gradually create a small but extremely resourceful army to protect the people of Jones and Jasper counties from the local Confederate troops ordered to confiscate food and goods from their own local people. Their efforts are surprisingly successful for the rest of the war.
I will tell no more about the movie for I hope that everyone reading this will attend and soon.  Movies of seriousness and character development don’t tend to stay long in Mississippi theaters. McConaughey is magnificent as Newt Knight and though I am not a movie critic, I thought the rest of the cast was also very good.
As we struggle today with all sorts of racial and economic problems like “black lives matter,” “economic inequality,” “failing budgets,” “corporate tax reductions,” Newt Knight and those who proclaimed the Free State of Jones at least suggest that coming together in solidarity and fighting for the common good of all men and women and not just for the wealthy and prominent is good for the spirit and the soul and can be successful. They appealed to General Sherman for help against the Confederates who they were already fighting, but were turned down, so they found their own way to protect their community.
With the political mess we face, the moral demise we have created, the tawdry remarks and attacks and ugliness which seem to attract folks and be effective, why not try to rally the troops in a peaceful but effective proclamation of freedom and goodness and graciousness? Why not answer our problems with solutions based on rightness and effective action?
If it can be done in Jones County in the midst of a terrible war and with little help, surely we can do better with all at our disposal if we only put aside self serving ambition and greed and embrace our discipleship as Jesus admonished us to do recently at Sunday Mass and put Him first. He will give us what we need to do it.  That beats cursing the darkness, complaining and doing nothing.
(George Evans, a retired pastoral minister, lives in Madison and is a member of Jackson St. Richard Parish.)