When Gov. Phil Bryant signed the proclamation in February declaring April as Confederate Heritage Month and the last Monday of April as Confederate Memorial Day, it was the twenty-fourth consecutive proclamation of its kind in Mississippi.
Bryant is the fourth governor to continue the annual tradition of signing the proclamation, according to documents provided by two separate public records requests and governors’ papers at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Former Gov. Kirk Fordice first signed the proclamation in December 1993 – the first year Mississippi formally began recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“I was so pleased to see you recognized and proclaimed April Confederate Heritage Month,” a Southaven resident wrote to Fordice in 1996, according to logs stored at the Department of Archives and History. “It seems so much publicity is given to other celebrations of heritage recently that important events in the South are overshadowed, ignored and forgotten.”
The text of the proclamation – nearly verbatim – has been used each year since 1993, including the 2016 proclamation.
Fordice signed the proclamation between 1993-1999. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove signed it all four years of his term between 2000-2003. Gov. Haley Barbour signed it each year between 2004-2011. Bryant picked up in 2012 and has signed one each year since.
When Bryant signed the proclamation in February, his communications director Clay Chandler told reporters the proclamation was signed at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The initial proclamation in 1993 was signed by Fordice at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Military Order of the Stars and Bars and the Order of the Confederate Rose, records show.
Musgrove, who is the only one of the surviving governors who have signed the proclamation to go on record with Mississippi Today, said his staff prepared proclamations for him to sign, and that they often pass down proclamations from previous governors. He said he never spoke with the Sons of Confederate Veterans himself, and he would not sign the proclamation in its current form if he were governor in 2016.
“I think it’s important that we gain insight from our history, look at where we’ve made mistakes, and try to learn from them,” Musgrove said in a March interview with Mississippi Today. “No one erases history for who they are. However, we are held responsible for how we respond. The way I look at it, these (confederate) symbols represent a culture that preserves that institutional racism. That proclamation probably doesn’t represent a fairness that should’ve been included.”
Mississippi is the only state to recognize Confederate Heritage Month, and it is one of seven states to recognize Confederate Memorial Day, according Southern Poverty Law Center research that will be released in coming weeks. The proclamation this year made national headlines, as Southern states continue to find balance between honoring their past and shaping their future.
After the 2015 church shooting in Charleston, S.C., state officials there removed the Confederate battle flag from the capitol grounds. The city of New Orleans is currently working with the Louisiana legislature to determine what to do with the city’s confederate monuments, which were slated to be removed and are consistently vandalized by opponents of the symbolism.
There is no mention of proclamations in the Mississippi Code, even in the section that lists the governor’s powers. Generally, though, there have been two types of gubernatorial proclamations signed in Mississippi. The first is a legally binding proclamation, like one that declares a disaster area or sends National Guard troops to a certain area of the state. Those typically are co-signed by the Mississippi secretary of state and are logged by that office.
Other types of proclamations are not legally binding, recognizing citizens or towns in the state for various reasons or declaring holidays like Nurses Awareness Week or Confederate Heritage Month. Those types of proclamations typically are logged by the governor’s office itself, not the secretary of state.
This year’s proclamation from Bryant is the only Confederate Heritage Month proclamation logged by the secretary of state’s office since 1995, according to a public records request. None of Barbour’s or Bryant’s proclamations, with the exception of 2016, are logged in books kept at the secretary of state’s capitol office. Mississippi Today received Bryant’s and Barbour’s proclamations from the secretary of state’s office, which requested them directly from the governor’s office.
Neither of Bryant’s communications employees, Clay Chandler and Knox Graham, replied to multiple calls and emails over a three-week period for comment about the proclamation.
Since 1993, the month and holiday have been celebrated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans with ceremonies, memorials and other events held mostly at confederate cemeteries, Mississippi SCV public affairs officer Marc Allen said. Events are hosted by the SCV and other confederate heritage groups every weekend in April, mostly at cemeteries and monuments, he said.
“We get people in touch with their history, and Confederate Heritage Month is a great way for us to do that,” Allen said. “Every weekend of the month, there’s something going on somewhere, and Confederate Memorial Day is by far the biggest day for us.”
Numerous protests have occurred in Jackson regarding the proclamation. On March 26, about two dozen protesters held a “not my heritage” rally outside the state capitol. More protests are planned this week, with the proclamation being a targeted concern of activists.