- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

LAUREL, Miss. (AP) - With good reason, Mississippians always get nervous when Hollywood is about to tell the world its version of our history.

It is especially true when the movie deals with the complicated, button-pushing, never-ending story of the Civil War and Mississippi’s role in it.

But this time we may not cringe with our hand in the popcorn bucket with “Free State of Jones” showing in theaters across the country, and featuring Matthew McConaughey in the lead role.

“I think it’s going to create a great sense of pride among Mississippians,” says Wyatt Moulds, 62, who has taught history at Jones County Junior College since 1982. He served as a history consultant on the movie and worked closely with director Gary Ross, whose previous films include “The Hunger Games” and “Seabiscuit.”

“I believe young Mississippians are especially going to find this movie enlightening because it goes against everything they’ve been told about this state and racism and the Civil War,” Moulds says.

The film focuses on the life of Newton “Newt” Knight, a tough, struggling white farmer who led a sizable revolt against the Confederacy during the middle of the war. He also openly shared a common-law marriage with one of his grandfather’s former slaves, Rachel. They had five children.

But the story of why he turned against the Confederacy, and his relentless pursuit of freedom to live with whomever he chose, makes Knight’s life a gut puncher.

In 1862, shortly after suffering a brutal defeat at Corinth, the Confederacy passed the “20 slave law.” Any white male who owned 20 or more slaves was exempt from battle.

Knight didn’t own a slave. He didn’t grow cotton. Jones County’s soil wasn’t fit for growing much of anything except trees, and the county had the fewest slaves in the state - they made up only 12 percent of the county’s population.

“That law was pretty much the last straw for Newt and some others,” Moulds says.

It was at that moment when Knight realized he was fighting another man’s war. He went home and eventually formed the Knight Company, a group of an estimated 125 farmers and slaves from Jones County and the surrounding area who were willing to fight the Confederacy.

“The Jones County insurrectionists were neither abolitionists nor ‘Southern Yankees,’” says Victoria Bynum, who wrote the 2001 book “The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War.” ”They were Southern white farmers driven by war to cross lines of race, question slavery, and to declare their own war on the Confederacy.”

But why now, 94 years after his death and 154 years since his break from the Confederacy, would STX Entertainment and IM Global combine to spend $65 million to tell Newt Knight’s story?

“Up until the 1960s, the same kind of people who started the war - and the Civil War was about slavery; that fact is not argued on any scholarly level - controlled the government, the media and the way history books were written,” Moulds explains. “Everything about the Civil War, particularly from the South’s side . they created this myth that the South was monolithic, even the lowly farmer.

“But in the 1960s, we also found out our government would lie to us. That created a whole new generation of historians, and Newt has been one of those that historians have focused on with several books. But the reason his story was ‘lost,’ so to speak, is because it didn’t fit with everything that had been written before.

“But he’s never gone away. It’s like his heart is still beating from under the ground. And that’s why his time has come.”

Critics will claim the movie is fabricated, that events shown never took place.

Moulds says such an argument won’t stand up.

“This movie is based on primary sources, not what ‘grandpa’ said,” he says. “It’s based on official records of the war. It’s been thoroughly researched. For instance, when the (United States) flag goes up over the courthouse in Ellisville, we know that happened. It’s documented.”

Ross has made it easy to look at the sources used for various storylines and scenes. A website, freestateofjones.info is already available.


Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, https://www.clarionledger.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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