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Mitchell: The Core of History Is Fact, Core of Heritage Is Emotion

Quick: Name a Mississippi public university named for a slave-owning Confederate general.

If you said, “Alcorn,” you’re right.

The Lorman school dates to 1871. It was an American first, opened to the newly freed slaves as well as the free people of color who lived in Mississippi before the Civil War. Segregated by law for its first 90 years, to this day more than 98 percent of Alcorn students are black.

History is what it is, and it’s simply not a reliable ally to explain emotion.

Still, from the moment it was suggested Mississippians would do better to go forward under a unifying flag, “protecting history” has been a rallying cry. From the other side of the fence, there’s been a frenzy to purge assorted “reminders of our past.”

The legacy of James Lusk Alcorn hasn’t been mentioned much, if at all. But otherwise “historical fact” has been tossed around liberally, especially on social media, as the core of “heritage” and the reason why a name or symbol should or shouldn’t be used.

The truth, however, as illustrated by “Alcorn,” is this: The actual history of a person or a symbol is not always relevant. What matters is the current significance people attach to a name or a symbol. Generations of graduates are justifiably proud of their college degrees with “Alcorn” across the top in big letters. Burn those diplomas? Not hardly.

If Alcorn alumni think of their school’s namesake at all, perhaps they reference his post-war years when he joined the party of Lincoln and supported full and equal rights, including the right to vote, for those who had been held in bondage. But mostly they think of the university, their experiences as a student and benefits flowing from their years pursuing higher education.

Not convinced? Try “America.”

Americans love this nation because of what it means to us. We believe in its basic goodness, the opportunities it provides. We don’t care that it is named for an Italian explorer, born in 1451, who likely never saw this part of the world. Amerigo Vespucci is known to have visited the coast of what is now Brazil, but he died long before a French mapmaker casually decided to put his name on two “new” continents.

Too, according to the U.S. Census, a mere six percent of Americans today claim Italian ancestry. Is if fair that the whole country be named for one of them? In this “melting pot” of myriad ancestries, is it appropriate to exclude all, save one, from being represented in the name?

And finally, our state capital. It is named in honor Andrew Jackson. He was a valiant military leader who later served as president. By today’s values, he also engaged in ethnic cleansing of Native Americans (or whatever Native Americans are called once we come up with a name better than “America.”) Jackson owned at least 44 and perhaps up to 300 slaves.

Pleas for “change” have made good TV. The mayor of Memphis and assorted council members are seeking re-election. Memphis has risen to third place among the nation’s top ten crime-plagued cities. The third police officer killed in the past four years died Saturday. What’s the priority of candidates? Dig up Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s rotted remains (and those of his wife) and move them from a city park. (Also note that Memphis shares a name with the city in Egypt where slavery may have been invented and was certainly practiced in its most brutal form.)

Not to be overly repetitive from previous columns, but the leading voices for a new Mississippi flag — one without the Confederate battle flag as its canton — are not the NAACP (which, by the way, was founded by white people) or other civil rights folks.

The advocates are simply saying that if we’re going to have a flag — and we should have a flag — it should be one that unites rather than one that divides. They’re not saying history should be forgotten. They’re saying it’s not always the best peg upon which to hang a rationale for today’s actions.

We’re supposed to learn history, to respect history and to benefit from history. But history is not, of itself, mandate to preserve things as they are. Quite the opposite.
The name of a university, a nation, a state capital — and the elements of a flag — evoke feelings based on our individual interactions and experiences with what they represent today. Our ancestors are honored when we regard them with respect. It doesn’t honor them when we treat our contemporaries with disrespect.

Charlie Mitchell

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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