Mississippi Schools & the Fire-Eating Opposition

“A law was made by the Confederate States Congress about this time allowing every person who owned twenty negroes to go home. It gave us the blues; we wanted twenty negroes. Negro property suddenly became very valuable, and there was raised the howl of “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” The glory of the war, the glory of the South, the glory and the pride of our volunteers had no charms for the conscript.”
– Sam Watkins, Company H, First Tennessee Infantry, Co. Aytch or A Side Show of the Big Show (1882)

In my perhaps biased opinion, the state of Mississippi and most especially my corner of northeastern Mississippi have at its core a population of good, honest, hard-working people. The argument might be made that people who could be described in this manner have dropped in percentage to the overall population in recent years, but thanks for the foundation laid by members of the previous generations over much of our state a tradition still continues of those who have these foundational values. In contrast to the southerners pictured in movies (especially those produced by non-southerners), most of my ancestors and many of the people I have always associated with in Mississippi had much more in common with the Walton’s than they ever did with the O’Hara’s. My ancestors were not the rich plantation owners who were quite ready to “eat fire” and start a civil war. But, oddly enough, many of my ancestors and their neighbors were the very ones who fought in that war once it began in order to, as they saw it, protect their homes from invaders. I do not know or have reason to think that any of them either opposed or supported slavery, but I have certainly never found where a single Mississippi ancestor of mine ever owned a slave. It might be nice to think this was out of moral conviction, but the available data seems to indicate it had more to do with economics as few of my Mississippi forbearers had the money or acreage needed for slave holding to even be an option. As they say, it is often a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.

As mostly subsistence farmers in northeastern Mississippi, my ancestors also were not able to take advantage of the opportunity of a public education. Public schools during those days were the exception rather than the rule and the planter class had little, if any, motivation to ever support such schools, as their own children were educated in private schools, many even being as far away as Philadelphia, PA. The public education system of Mississippi which began to slowly gain ground after the war and gradually developed in the following years was a life-changing blessing to many with backgrounds similar to my forbearers. As my grandmother told my father, “You can either work hard in school or work hard in the field” and days spent in the cotton fields and “truck patches” provided all of the motivation he and many others needed to take advantage of these educational opportunities at having a better life for them and their children. With all of this said, I find it especially displeasing when I see how some in our state today have attempted to feed half-truth’s and false information to many of our good and honest Mississippi citizen’s about our schools and the upcoming Initiative 42 in ways which are seemingly designed to take advantage of their sincere values.

As stated above, the people of my area of the state who come from subsistence farming stock, have a natural love and affinity for their local public schools. They will literally work themselves night and day at Harvest Festivals, Spaghetti Suppers, Auctions, and in almost any other way needed to support the schools that they value so highly. Our local schools have always been and really still continue to be the single-most effective and valuable method to improve the standard of living for themselves and their children. God-fearing and spiritual at their core, the common people of my area of the state also saw and still see education as something to be valued spiritually. The Bible is, after all, a written document and education meant that one was better able to understand the Bible for one’s self instead of taking another’s word for the lessons it contained. Ultimately, such an education might even result in a young person deciding to pursue a church-related vocation, whether in the ministry or something related, due to their increased Biblical understanding and educational foundation allowing such a vocation to be pursued at the college or post graduate level. Yes, Christian principles have traditionally been so ingrained into our upbringings that even the most notorious drinker or poorest provider for his family would not think twice before telling you how important God was to the individual and the community.

These socially conservative, hard working individuals were thus appalled over the years as court decisions were handed down from the federal level which strongly contradicted their religious beliefs and principles. Taking prayer out of schools, legalizing abortion, and providing government recognition for homosexual marriage are three examples which stand out to many in my area as the government going directly against the Word of God contained in the Bible via the federal courts. Now, it is not my purpose to argue the merits of these decisions or the degree to which they contradict the Bible and/or indicate the decadence of our national morality. Instead, I am making an effort to point out two things which are important to understand. First, the public school system to the rural subsistence farmer in Mississippi had almost without question been the single-most impactful government service to provide for economic improvement and social mobility. Second, the court system (although mostly on the federal level) has rendered several decisions which have directly caused these same predominantly Christian people to develop a strong distrust for the government in general and especially the courts and judges in relation to overall morality and the moral future of our country.

Thus, things like Common Core (which initially was state-led and sounded like a fine idea) became a lightning rod to many of these same socially conservative people. It was portrayed as a “federal mandate” handed down from Washington that would force our children to be unthinking drones who would learn pro-Islamic texts in history class and many other hot-button issues for socially conservative people. Yet again, it is not my intention to argue the merits of Common Core or the potentially dubious nature of some of these examples used to generate opposition to it (such as tying Common Core to pro-Islamic teaching), other than to say that I was certainly not sad to see it and PARCC leave our Mississippi schools. But, I believe it is not an exaggeration to say that for the average socially conservative Mississippian Common Core is something which they at best have a mistrust about and at worst think was evil being pushed into our schools by the federal government.

Understanding all of this, it was most convenient when those opposing Initiative 42, the citizen signed petition generated ballot initiative proposing a change to our Mississippi Constitution providing for an “adequate and efficient” level of funding for our schools, used the courts and even Common Core as means to stir up opposition and mistrust about the initiative among the vast majority of Mississippians who would identify themselves as socially conservative. Yes, among many descended from Mississippi subsistence farmers, Initiative 42 would seem to be something they would naturally be inclined to support. As mentioned, they know the value of the public schools and in their collective memory there is a vague impression that public schools are something which helped their ancestors more than it did the rich plantation owners. These “salt of the earth” type people could potentially be one of the largest groups supporting Initiative 42. However, certain state leaders who have for years totally opposed the public school system effectively put the word out to churches and local conservative groups that Initiative 42 would allow the court system unprecedented power to “rule” our Mississippi schools. Should Initiative 42 pass, the courts system could, according to these anti-public school politicians, by one strike of the gavel totally transform our Mississippi public schools into mere shadows of what they once were. Yes, it was suggested that a “liberal judge” (in Hinds County no less) would literally be sitting on ready to reintroduce Common Core and any other seemingly anti-Christian principle directly into our schools. The people would be silenced as our legislature would no longer even be able to participate. An image was being painted of a “liberal judge” being given dictatorial powers to open a liberal, morally deplorable “Pandora’s box” in our Mississippi schools and there would be nothing God fearing people could do to stop it, should this evil Initiative 42 be enacted.  (For a thorough discussion of why this argument is false, judicial review in this case is an absolute necessity, and nothing to be frightened about see the previous posts https://thinkingconservativeblog.wordpress.com/2015/09/15/initiative-42-events-up-until-this-point-part-i/  & https://thinkingconservativeblog.wordpress.com/2015/09/15/initiative-42-events-up-until-this-point-part-ii/ ).

History, as they say, is doomed to be repeated unless we are willing to learn from the lessons of our past. The Bible tells us as well to “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Yes, those opposing Initiative 42 based upon their dislike of public schools and their desire to maintain control of the millions of dollars which they had been shortchanging the schools over the years by not funding the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP), had potentially inserted a “wedge issue” to divide the level of support for Initiative 42 among many of the common people of Mississippi such as those I have described above. This breed of anti-public school economic conservative is in many ways made up of the philosophical heirs and sometimes the literal descendants of the old plantation class in Mississippi. Yes, the old “fire eater” plantation class of Mississippi which had opposed a public school system which would cost them tax money and benefit the children of the poorer farmers. That same old plantation class which had sought secession from the Union and literally pushed for a Civil War which they knew full well would not have them or their children on the front lines fighting. The “new” plantation class of Mississippi politicians still send their children to private schools and wish to dismantle the public school system as they see it as a “leech” sucking valuable “blood” in tax dollars from the state government that could be spent on things which would benefit them and their friends directly like corporate tax cuts, tax cuts of any sort, and doling out money to developers of retail stores. These are not just words, as these individuals were only a few months ago trying to pass billions in tax cuts and in the past two years have handed out over $100 million to such retail stores without a thought. I am not attempting to quote the Bible out of context in any way, but does the Bible also not tell us in Matthew that the only way to truly know anyone is “by their fruits”?

My friends look at these individuals who are suddenly so intent on “protecting us” from moral degradation via school funding, what real “fruits” have they produced other than wanting to give millions away to things which do not benefit our children, all the while arguing that millions for our children would cost people jobs or money in higher taxes? This “new plantation class” has done an excellent job of selling the Christian, common men and women of Mississippi on the fact that once again the federal government is going to “invade” our home soil this time in the form of a takeover of our Mississippi schools. All the while, these same individuals have used intimidation tactics via threatening the jobs of all other Mississippi departments and public employees so that their employees will out of fear not support the initiative. These same politicians have issued countless admonitions and edicts about the limitations which public school employees should exercise when voicing any support of Initiative 42; all of which have led many educators and teachers to be intimidated to even engage in public discussion of Initiative 42 much less voice their open support. But, there is still the other group, the common people of Mississippi who work hard at jobs every day and who motivate themselves by envisioning a better future for their children via education just as their forebearers worked in the fields and hoped that the public schools would allow a better life for their children. Yes, the vast majority of voting Mississippians are these honest, hardworking people, with a spiritual core based upon Christian principles. In almost all respects, they are the descendants of the old subsistence farmers. Will these good people be led into taking this “bait” whose purpose is to manipulate them into once again fighting on the front lines of the planter’s war? Will they out of good intentions fight against the very initiative which would benefit them and their families all the while being manipulated by those who only desire more money in their own pockets and less being spent to educate those children not lucky enough to be born wealthy? We will have to wait and see when we vote in November. As for myself, I will be voting “YES” for a change to the Constitution of Mississippi and “YES” again on Initiative 42. I will do this because it is morally the right thing to do for our children and because it is something which my ancestors who worked in the cotton fields years ago would, I believe, be very proud of me doing.

– Clint Stroupe

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