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Echoes of “Dixie” rang through the conference room at Beauvior on Saturday as the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans opened their annual reunion with a booming a capella rendition of the Confederate battle song.
A while later, the banquet began and featured a high-profile award recipient: Gov. Phil Bryant.
Though Bryant, a dues-paying member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, did not attend the event, he was honored on Saturday with the group’s annual Gov. John J. Pettus Heritage Award.
“We’re an organization trying to promote the true Southern history, and we wanted to honor Gov. Bryant for his role in doing that,” said Jeff Barnes, leader of the Mississippi Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “Really, it’s for the proclamations of Confederate Heritage Month. That’s why we honored him.”
Bryant has signed state proclamations declaring April as “Confederate Heritage Month” each year since he became governor in 2012. Those proclamations have carried on a tradition started by former Gov. Kirk Fordice in 1993 – the same year Mississippi began recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Fordice was also a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The group’s activities in Mississippi range from maintaining Civil War cemeteries and Confederate monuments to helping people trace their genealogical history. In recent weeks, the group has put their weight behind a ballot initiative aiming to cement the current state flag – which is the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem – in the state’s constitution.
Bryant is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ Rankin County’s Lowry Rifles Camp #1740. That membership makes him the most prominent sitting public official in the United States who is a known member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the SCV and similar Confederate-affiliated groups.
Bryant has never commented on his membership in the group, and his office did not comment on the recent award when asked by Mississippi Today.
“He doesn’t attend regular meetings, but his dues are paid and his membership status is current,” Marc Allen, Mississippi SCV public affairs officer and a member of the same chapter as Bryant, said last year. “Gov. Bryant has Confederate ancestors like many people in Mississippi do. This is one way we can honor and pay respect to American veterans.”
As violent events like the 2015 Charleston church shooting and the 2017 Charlottesville protests have reignited conversations about changing the Mississippi state flag, Bryant, whose state-issued SUV has a state flag license tag on the front, has pointed back to the 2001 referendum in which the state’s voters decided nearly 2-to-1 to keep the current state flag.
“Whatever the state flag is or is not should be decided by Mississippi voters,” Bryant said in 2017.
The June 9 event in which Bryant was held at Beauvior, the Biloxi home of Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis, and honored several of the group’s members through various awards, including the Gen. Nathaniel Bedford Forrest Compatriot of the Year Award and the Col. William H. Moore Recruiter of the Year Award.
The award Bryant received is named after Mississippi Gov. John J. Pettus, who served as governor between 1859-1863. A staunch secessionist, Pettus is the governor who led Mississippi out of the United States of America and into the Confederacy.
Mississippi historian David Sansing, who wrote a book in 2016 titled “Mississippi Governors: Soldiers Statesmen Scholars Scoundrels,” wrote of Pettus: “After General Robert E. Lee’s surrendered at Appomattox, Governor Pettus refused to surrender and settled in Arkansas where he continued to resist federal military authorities until his death on January 28, 1867.”
Before the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ banquet on June 9, the group hosted their annual business meeting, complete with an old-timey Confederate color guard, dressed in red shirts, white pants and straw hats. A couple color guard members carried rifles.
“It’s an honor he (Gov. Bryant) would be part of our group, and we were happy to honor him last weekend,” Barnes said.