The Racist Debate Behind Free State of Jones

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Robin Hood or race traitor? Depends who you ask.

You might know that the upcoming Civil War drama Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey as Confederate rebel Newton Knight, is based on a true story. A poor white farmer led a mixed-race group in guerrilla warfare in Jones County, Mississippi. Besides this simple description, however, historians, Knight’s descendants, and those local to the area once known as the “Free State of Jones” are divided – often along racist lines – on Knight’s actual rationale for rebelling against the South while living in it.

First, when pinning down what book the film is being adapted from, you come across the various adaptations of history floating around this event. There’s the first telling, a 1935 biography by Knight’s son that emphasizes the philosophical disagreements between the Confederacy and his father while omitting his post-war marriage to a freed slave.

A 1942 novelization loosely captures the events of a Southern rebel without much political judgement either way in favor of action, turned into a similarly discourse-light 1948 film called Tap Roots. Before real historians waded into this mire, the debate was a family issue. In an article published in Smithsonian Magazine, a descendant of Knight’s explained the divided bloodlines:

“The White Knights are descended from Newt and Serena, are often pro-Confederate, and proud of their pure white bloodlines. (In 1951, one of them, Ethel Knight, published a vitriolic indictment of Newt as a traitor to the Confederacy.) The Black Knights are descended from Newt’s cousin Dan, who had children with one of his slaves. The White Negroes (a.k.a. the Fair Knights or Knight Negroes) are descended from Newt and Rachel.”

The “White Negro” line grew messier when Knight had children with Rachel’s mixed-race daughter Georgeanne. Knight was so virile that dating in the Jones County area requires a bit of background research for anyone on one of the Knight family tree’s many obscure branches.

The racial obsessiveness in Jones County has not disappeared in the time between War and now. It hasn’t even dissipated. As many neo-Confederate historians and locals decry Knight as a manipulative traitor, some go so far as to declare that the Free State of Jones is a myth. On the website of Jones County’s local chapter of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, an announcement warned that the film will portray Newt Knight as a civil rights activist and a hero. But, the post warns, “He is actually a thief, murderer, adulterer and a deserter”.

Free State of Jones Trailer: Not as Alright, Alright, Alright as Hoped

Like those denying that the Civil War was about slavery, the verdict on Knight seems divided through racist politics. Knight’s mixed-race progeny doomed him to a tumultuous historical fate.

“A lot of people find it easier to forgive Newt for fighting Confederates than mixing blood,” said one local quoted by Smithsonian.

However, now that historians have begun focusing on the events, evidence has arisen that Knight was against secession, against slavery and pro-Union. Texas State University Professor of History Victoria Bynum’s 2003 book The Free State of Jones provides numerous examples of Knight’s pro-Union sentiments and the many women and slaves working with Knight and his company. Knight’s former commanding officer observed that his former soldiers were attempting not only to rebel, but to join the Union Army (which several later succeeded in doing in New Orleans).

Sally Jenkins, a Washington Post reporter, and John Stauffer, a Harvard historian wrote The State of Jones, providing further evidence that Knight’s views on race played a significant role in his actions during and after the war – even if his deep-South offspring don’t like to hear it.

How this comes across in the film will be interesting to see, though, as writer/director Gary Ross worked with Stauffer to research the script and encouraged him to publish The State of Jones, it’s likely that the film will echo the same abolitionist, anti-racist rhetoric found by the most recent historians. Whether this will do anything but infuriate the entrenched camps in Jones County is unlikely, but it may provide future generations with an easily accessible alternative to their grandparents’ stories about a local historical figure. Racism may be alive and well, but the combined tide of history and entertainment will secure Newton Knight’s place against slavery.

Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).