Birney Imes: The gray ghost

February 26, 2011 10:27:00 PM



As a child growing up mid-century in the deep South, one had the feeling the Civil War had just ended only a few years earlier.  


The lingering effects were palpable. The term "Yankee" was not a term of endearment, far from it. Segregation was strictly adhered to, despite the many white families, who for generations had depended on black women to run their households and raise their children. To some extent, mine was one such family. 


Strange now, but at the time it seemed oddly normal. 


My grandma, with whom I spent much of my childhood, rented rooms to boarders in her large house on College Street. Over the years she and my grandfather had under their roof W girls, spinsters and even a Confederate veteran, who died there. In the attic there were letters bearing Confederate postage stamps. The grandparents of my generation were the sons and daughters of men who fought. 


My friends and I watched "The Gray Ghost," a series celebrating the exploits of Confederate Col. John Mosby and his Mosby''s Raiders, a band of guerrillas that tormented Union forces in Virginia. In our eyes, Col. Mosby and his men represented the forces of good triumphing over evil. We cheered them on. 


As a people we clung to the old ways. From a child''s vantage point, our history was grand and noble. So it seemed. 


That illusion required you overlook the unpleasant fact that our "noble past" was built on the backs of an oppressed people, a people who still did not share equal rights. 


That all began to change in the 60s with the civil rights movement. A short, eloquent pastor from Montgomery with a fervent belief in Gandhi''s nonviolent resistance helped us all see the world differently. 


It wasn''t quick, easy or without pain and violence, and the effects are lingering. But thanks to the courageous efforts of blacks and whites, the South and the nation came through that crucible, and we are all better for it. Schools and public facilities were integrated, and those long ago times now seem like an abstraction. 


When our children -- who went to public schools and had black friends and a principal they loved -- were young, and I tried to describe those times, they would look at me uncomprehendingly. 


As for its public image, Mississippi has had a tough go of it. Hollywood has made fortunes depicting life in Mississippi as it once was. Let me say it again, as it once was. That is our cross to bear, I suppose. 


Want to see me get defensive? Criticize Mississippi in those tired, stereotypical terms. We are not that place ... haven''t been for decades. Sure, we have our many well-publicized shortcomings, but the positive change that has taken place in my lifetime is breathtaking. 


The genius that Mississippi has produced is the envy of the world. Much of it -- blues music, an obvious example -- was born of that unhappy time. Pick a field -- sports, literature, music, art, business -- and there are Mississippians who have not merely excelled, but are revered. 


And then you have something pop up like this Nathan-Bedford-Forrest-on-the-car-tag thing. Like the Gray Ghost, Forrest was a brilliant battlefield tactician. In fact, the preeminent Civil War historian, Shelby Foote, (a Mississippian, by the way) stated in Ken Burns'' documentary on the conflict that the Civil War produced two authentic geniuses, Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Bedford Forrest. 


To say Forrest comes with baggage is an understatement. He has his apologists, and perhaps in the end he found redemption; let''s hope so. To put him on a car tag celebrates the old days and the old ways in a manner that incriminates us all. It''s simply the wrong thing to do. It reminds me of another car tag, one I used to see as a kid. It bore a cartoon figure of a defiant Rebel soldier with the words, "Hell no, I ain''t fergettin''." 


As Mississippians, we share a history that is at once a blessing and a curse. We continue to struggle with the symbols of our past, seeking unity and in a sense, redemption. The road is long, but we''ve come a long way. 


Birney Imes is the publisher of The Commercial Dispatch. E-mail him at [email protected]