The Time Traveler was recently enjoying a stroll around the DeSoto County Courthouse lawn during the Hernando Farmers Market and chanced to meet a descendant of one of Mississippi’s most famous statesman, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus Lamar or otherwise known as L.Q.C. Lamar.
Lamar’s descendant, a large gregarious and affable man named Luke Heiskell of Oxford, Lamar’s great-great-great-grandson, and I both agreed the nation is in dire need of healing. There are far too many, left and right, pouring gasoline on the flickering fires of mistrust and rancor.
Named for a Roman statesman, L.Q.C. Lamar of Mississippi, who rose to become an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, represented his beloved Mississippi in both houses of Congress. He enjoyed a successful law practice in Oxford and taught later at the University of Mississippi. A wonderful museum in Oxford chronicles his life and contributions to his state, nation, and world.
But it was Lamar’s lasting legacy of reconciliation after the bitter American Civil War that survives to this day and occasioned his example of statesmanship to be included in President John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Profiles in Courage.”
To be sure, Lamar was a passionate supporter of the war, helping even to draft Mississippi’s Ordinance of Secession, which specifically mentioned ensuring the continuance of slavery.
He even worked on the staff of his wife’s cousin, General James Longstreet. In 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed Lamar as Confederate minister to Russia.
Not to gloss over troubling aspects of his legacy, Lamar resisted voting rights for African-Americans and was an ardent opponent of Reconstruction, the 11-year period after the Civil War ended in which Mississippi remained basically under martial law.
But, yet, Lamar was included as only one of eight individuals, joining the likes of famed orator Daniel Webster and noted abolitionist John Quincy Adams, who merited Kennedy’s attention and inclusion in his book, as noted by historian William Rogers in Mississippi History Now.
Lamar stirred the nation by the oration of a powerful and moving eulogy delivered in the well of the United States House of Representatives on behalf of a bitter enemy, Charles Sumner, beaten to near-death by a cane by a Congressman from South Carolina as the war erupted back in 1861.
It was Lamar’s moving words that helped heal a nation:
“Would that the spirit of the illustrious dead, whom we lament today, could speak from the grave of this deplorable discord, in tones which would reach each and every heart throughout this broad territory: My countrymen know one another and you will love one another.”
No doubt Kennedy included Lamar in his book due to the latter’s passionate desire for reconciliation.
Kennedy himself would be at the helm of a divided nation with rioting in our nation’s cities, including the deadly riot at Ole Miss and assassinations of civil rights leaders like Medgar Evers of Jackson, NAACP Field Secretary.
Kennedy turned to statesmen like Lamar for inspiration. Where are our L.Q.C. Lamar’s of today in Mississippi?
Where are the pivotal men and women in Mississippi’s leadership today who can help heal the rancor and division in this state, which historically and predictably, fall along racial and political fault lines?
Much debate has centered around symbols and images which divide rather than unite.
Rather than turning to the state’s seasoned leadership, it often falls to the young to propose solutions that can heal our battle-scarred state. Ostensibly mature men and women well entrenched in the political status-quo often have their feet, as well as their hands, frozen in granite or marble as sure as the statues of the marbled statesmen of old. These old guards are in effect, petrified, immovable to show courage or leadership for fear of losing votes, the lifeblood of power, and status.
A former Ole Miss walk-on, a scholar-athlete with deep DeSoto County roots that go back generations, Walker Sturgeon has proposed that Mississippi adopt its original state flag that has roots dating back nearly two centuries, the Magnolia Flag.
His reasoning is that by adopting a banner with deep historical ties, it reflects both the past and future of his native state, without the banner currently in use that only became official in 2001.
The current banner was first flown in 1894, nearly a half-century after Mississippi sent off her sons to fight in a war that would cost more than a half-million soldiers’ lives, and countless civilians swept up in its aftermath and preamble, including more than four million enslaved African-Americans.
Another flag proposed is a design by the granddaughter of the late U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis, who was a lifelong family friend. It’s handsome enough and attractive to many but for some does not strike a historical chord that can unite all Mississippians.
The fact is our nation’s flag, our beautiful Stars and Stripes, has flown over slavery and injustice, as well as prosperity and the noble ideal of justice and freedom, for nearly three centuries and no true patriot, white, black, brown, red or any other multi-colored hue of human complexion, is predisposed to take it down or keep it from flying over the land of the free and the home of the brave. Its red stripes signify the precious blood of our servicemen and women who have kept us free.
Changing a flag won’t heal all of this state’s deep divisions. But it’s worthy of debate.
And who are our L.Q.C. Lamars of the 21st century? Could they be Republicans Philip Gunn, Mississippi House Speaker, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and others who have at least courageously suggested in times past that Mississippi take a look at a banner that truly represents all Mississippians? Could it be our highly educated and eminently capable Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann?
Are they predisposed to act boldly like Ole Miss’ beloved Archie Manning who has suggested the same?
Young Walker Sturgeon’s argument that Mississippi needs a new flag with historical roots has merit. The Magnolia Flag could unite us. Let’s at least begin the discussion.
Robert Lee Long is Curator of the DeSoto County Museum