by: Valerie Elverton-Dixon on June 27th, 2016 | 1 Comment »
Friday, June 24, 2016, I went to the first showing of the movie “The Free State of Jones” at my local movie theater. It was the day after the shocking vote in the United Kingdom where a majority of voters expressed their wish to exist the European Union. It was an OMG – Oh My God – moment for me. Why do I, sitting here in the United States, care what happens in the UK? It must be all that Masterpiece Theater on PBS, all that Downton Abbey and Poldark and Wolf Hall. It must be all that James Bond and Adele and Sting and Idris Elba. It must be Love Actually.
Watching this movie about a little known chapter of American Civil War and Reconstruction history where poor whites in Mississippi made common cause with runaway slaves, formed a community, and fought the Confederacy together made me think about how history can inform our thinking about the world we live in today.
As the fragments of my thoughts about the Brexit vote crashed against the confines of my mind, I saw on screen at least one yeoman farmer during the Civil War realize that this war was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. (Quiet as it is kept, most wars are such.) Conscription laws made it possible for men who owned at least twenty slaves to offer them for service to the Confederacy rather than go to fight and to die themselves. Men with no slaves had no choice but to go and fight when called. (In the north, the rich could also avoid the draft by paying others to take their place or by paying $300.)
Further, because of what was known as in-kind taxation, the Confederacy could come and take away a portion of a farmer’s harvest, livestock, and other goods to support the war effort. When Newton Knight, the hero of the movie, deserts, he helps women and children who are left behind defend their property against this confiscation. Life is hard enough. The reality of war made life harder.
The citizens of the UK who voted to leave the European Union must have felt that membership in the EU was making life harder. I was trying to understand why they would take such a vote. Some analysts cited discomfort with immigration into the UK from Europe. Too many people were coming into Great Britain, primarily from Eastern Europe, and competing for jobs and taking advantage of the National Health System and other social safety net provisions of the country. Brexit supporters wanted tighter restrictions. They understood the situation as a zero-sum game. They thought that leaving the EU would protect them from people who they thought were making their life harder.