‘Free State of Jones’ not free of historical inaccuracies, Southeastern professor asserts
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
by: Rene Abadie
HAMMOND – The soon-to-be released movie “The Free State of Jones” is influenced more
by the Hollywood-New York mindset and not on historical records, according to a Southeastern
Louisiana University history professor.
The movie tells the story of former Confederate soldier purportedly turned Union sympathizer Newton Knight – played by Matthew McConaughey – who led a band of followers, crossed the color line to marry a former slave, and spawned a community of like-minded individuals in Jones County, located in southeast Mississippi. The movie is based on a book by historian Victoria Bynum, explained Samuel C. Hyde Jr., a specialist in Deep South history and director of the university’s Center for Southeast Louisiana Studies.
“According to some, Knight heroically defied the Confederacy sustaining the cause of the Union in Mississippi, one of the most rebellious states, before courageously crossing the color line to marry a former slave,” said Hyde. “Thanks to a sympathetic New Orleans newspaperman and a 1935 biography written by Knight’s son, he was seen as a modern day Robin Hood, delivering the poor from oppression and facing down evil.”
In 1943, journalist James Street of Jones County wrote the story “Tap Roots,” which was made into a film designed to glorify the Knight myth and serve as an antidote for “Gone with the Wind” style nostalgia, Hyde added.
“It was not until 1951, when Newt’s own grandniece published ‘The Echo of the Black Horn,’ that the other interpretation of Knight became more widespread,” Hyde said. “In 1984 historian Rudy Leverett published a scholarly interpretation of the Jones County saga that proved similarly critical of Knight and company.”
According to Hyde, the revised version of Knight revealed evidence indicating that he was a deserter, murderer, horse thief and bigamist.
“He maintained simultaneous relationships with a white woman and a black woman, and there is compelling evidence that he fathered children with a daughter of his black wife from a previous marriage,” Hyde said.
He said trying to define the real Newton Knight is both simple and complex.
“He is both,” Hyde explained. “He did desert the Confederate army after he had willingly volunteered. He then defied Confederate authorities who sought to press him and some of his neighbors back into a starved existence of bare feet and ragged clothing which thousands of other Mississippians grimly endured and fought courageously despite appalling deprivation. It is also true that he murdered his opponents, defied racial mores and was a bigamist.”
But were his actions for love of the Union, as the film suggests? Hyde is skeptical.
With the exception of a couple of reports focusing on the activities of deserters in the area, Hyde said, there is little evidence to dispute that Knight most likely would have resisted the Union with the same vigor if they sought to press him into service or seize his crops.
He was certainly a man who took care of his own, Hyde said, and preferred to be left alone like thousands of other fiercely independent piney woods farmers across the rural South.
“Whatever position you take on Newton Knight, if you want to know the true man and the Jones County story, study the historical record,” Hyde said. “In this case, don’t look for it in this film from Hollywood.”