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A Confederate Veteran Speaks: What the Monuments Mean

An updated and expanded version of this post appeared in the Clarion-Ledger on August 12, 2018.

What do Confederate monuments mean? This is apparently a question that continues to vex many.

Perhaps Wiley N. Nash, Mississippian and Civil War veteran, can help.

“What good purpose,” he asked in 1908, “is subserved, promoted and supported by the erection of these Confederate memorials all over the South?”

#Shorter Nash reply: “White people shall rule the South forever.”

But of course Nash had studied both literature and the law at the University of Mississippi, so his actual answer came fully attired in his best Lost Cause finery:

Like the watch fires kindled along the coast of Greece that leaped in ruddy joy to tell that Troy had fallen, so these Confederate monuments, these sacred memorials, tell in silent but potent language, that the white people of the South shall rule and govern the Southern states forever.

Wiley was the featured speaker on December 2, 1908, when the white citizens of Lexington, Mississippi, gathered for ceremonies to unveil their new Confederate monument. It was typical of the memorials then going up across the south: A generic soldier standing atop a stone column, in front of the county courthouse.

The column is of modest height, not as tall as the one in Natchez, say, nor does it feature any secondary statues at its base, as the one in Greenwood does. Both were richer cities. Still, the monument’s debut was something to be celebrated. A college band played “Dixie.” A group of school children sang “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” Civil War Veterans paraded along with eleven girls chosen to represent the eleven seceding states of the Confederacy.

Nash was eminently qualified for his leading role. He was a Mississippian by birth, and a lawyer who had served both in the state legislature and as the state’s attorney general.

More to the point, he had fought in the war, riding in various cavalry units. Equally important, after the war he had fought in the campaign to restore white rule in Mississippi. Nash “did as much as any one man,” read one of his obituaries, “to assist in gaining control of the state government and accomplishing the overflow [sic] of carpet bag and Negro rule.”

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New Footage of the Freedom Riders in Jackson

Mississippi, U.S.A. — a 30-minute TV news report first aired 55 years ago — is a significant new addition to the visual history of the Freedom Rides, and a stark portrait of Jackson on the verge of great change.

The news report covered the arrival of the first Riders into Jackson on May 24, 1961. It was produced by WKY-TV, the NBC affiliate in Oklahoma City. I recently came across a link to it on Twitter; it’s been on YouTube for about 18 months, part of a collection of early TV news from WKY.

What makes Mississippi, U.S.A. so valuable? It has the first footage I’ve ever seen of the Riders at the Greyhound station in Jackson, and more footage than I’ve seen before of the Riders at the Trailways station.

Mississippi, U.S.A. also has interviews with several key players:

But wait, there’s still more:

Why was a local Oklahoma TV station in Jackson to cover the Rides? I don’t know yet. I do know that Scott Berner, one of the report’s producers, had worked in news at a TV station in Montgomery in the late 1950s, so presumably he would been aware of the movement and been paying attention as the Riders headed south from Washington, DC, in early May 1961.

As a piece of reporting, Mississippi, U.S.A. does a good job of showing and framing the moment. But it stumbles badly in trying to understand the status of the local movement. When William Simmons asserts that most blacks in Mississippi “prefer” segregation, the WKY team meekly concurs. “Outwardly they have shown little interest in the battle” for integration, the narrator intones, unable to imagine (or report) any other reason for the absence of sit-in protests in Jackson the year before, or for the fact that there were no Mississippians among the first 24 Riders to arrive in Jackson. (They would soon join in droves.)

Also, the WKY team doesn’t anticipate the flood of Riders soon to descend on Jackson, despite Charles Oldham clearly explaining CORE’s new plan to fill the city’s jails, and despite the fact that their own footage shows Riders from the third bus into Jackson, on May 28. (See Catherine Burks-Brooks, Etta Simpson and Clarence Wright, left to right, beginning at the 13:45 mark.)

The arrival of the third bus, four days after the first two, meant the Riders had abandoned their original destination of New Orleans in favor of “jail, no bail” in Jackson. But the WKY story doesn’t catch the shift in strategy (even though it does accurately report that most of the Riders had refused to bail out).

As a piece of early TV news, the WKY report is fascinating for its repeated use of “Dixie” as a soundtrack, especially during the several-minute montage showing the Riders at the two bus stations (from 10:10 to 14:28).

As TV, the WKY report is also notable for being shot by Houston Hall, who would go on to become one of the most respected cameraman in the trade. According to one poster at b-roll.net, a TV photography discussion site, “Houston Hall was perhaps the most solid shooter in the history of TV news and the man never zoomed. He just composed beautiful pictures.”

Another poster provides some of Hall’s backstory:

Houston Hall … when I started in the business that name was the equivalent of Babe Ruth in baseball. Houston was a rich kid from Oklahoma City who talked his parents into buying him a professional film camera when he was in his teens. He did some stringing and then was hired by WKY in Oklahoma City around 1960. I can’t prove this but I believe that Houston may be the inventor of the sequence as it applies to television news. He was (and is) a master of our craft and an artist to boot.

Thanks to Hall, Scott Berner and co-producer Gene Allen, we now have this incredible record of the Riders in Jackson. Their reporting and analytical shortcomings notwithstanding, this is a great addition to the history of the Freedom Rides, a wonderful gift on the campaign’s 55th anniversary.

Why I Rode: Henry Schwarzschild


Henry Schwarzschild was arrested with eight other Riders at the Trailways station in Jackson, Mississippi, on June 21, 1961. He was 35 years old. He died in 1996, at 70, several years before I started my project, so I never got to meet him, or even learn much about him.

But preparing for the 50th anniversary of the Rides in 2011, I came across his compelling answer to the single question most asked of the Riders: Why did you go?

I do not think that my participation in the Freedom Rides made an appreciable difference to the inevitably successful outcome of this struggle. Nor did I expect it to heal the wounds of which the white majority has for decades inflicted on the Negro. I went to the South in inadequate obedience to the Biblical demand “to do justly.” I went as a Jew who remembers the slavery of our forefathers in Egypt and who wants to obey the injunction to consider himself personally liberated from Egyptian slavery. I went as a Jew in response to the prophetic question “Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians to me, O children of Israel? said the Lord.” My participation in the Freedom Rides was an act of faith in the validity of a moral act. I went because I needed to go.

– From Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs by Guy and Candie Carawan.

Like at least two other Riders, Henry Schwarzschild was born in Europe and as a child fled with his family to the United States to escape World War II. Still, as Fred Powledge recounts in Free at Last? The Civil Rights Movement and the People Who Made It, Schwarzschild’s early years must have seemed charmed:

Schwarzschild was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1925, to a family of Jewish intellectuals who traced their name back to the Frankfurt ghetto of 1425. He moved to Berlin in 1931. His home was filled with the comings and goings of politically, intellectually, and artistically active people. “Even as a young kid,” said Schwarzschild, “it was impossible to avoid being made enormously, prematurely conscious of the world around one.”

In 1939 he and his family fled to Paris, then to New York City. For the rest of his life, Schwarzschild said, he would be “very sensitive to issues of political liberty.”

In 1944, he went to Fort Benning, Georgia, for his Army basic training as well as his basic introduction to race relations in the deep south. During the sit-ins in 1960, he joined a picket line outside a five-and-dime in Lexington, Kentucky, and was soon in touch with the Congress of Racial Equality.

After the Rides, Schwarzschild remained active in the movement, working closely with SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1964 he started the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, which for six years sent lawyers south to help with civil rights cases.

Schwarzschild next turned his attention to the death penalty. He worked on the issue for the American Civil Liberties Union from 1972 to 1990, the last 15 years as the head of its Capital Punishment Project. In his 1996 obituary in the New York Times he was described as “the major architect” of the campaign to end executions in this country.

Read more about Schwarzschild: Wikipedia | New York Times obituary

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