The Free State of Jones

Understanding the Civil War Era South from the Perspective of The Free State of Jones

Dr Priscilla Leder

On July 16, 2019, Dr. Priscilla Leder—my former colleague at Texas State University, and now the host of KZSM’s “Bookmarked” radio show—interviewed me and Dr. Rebecca Montgomery about the Civil War Era South, with a focus on my book, The Free State of Jones.

What a lively afternoon it was! Rebecca, Professor of History at Texas State University, had not only read and taught the Free State of Jones, but is the author of two works on Southern women and educational reform: The Politics of Education in the New South: Women and Reform in Georgia, 1890-1930, (2006), and Celeste Parrish and Educational Reform in the Progressive Era South (2019).

A freewheeling discussion of class, race and gender relations in the South followed Priscilla’s introductions. We began by discussing why I wrote The Free State of Jones, a few of the authors who previously wrote about it, and how I treated their works in my

Dr. Victoria Bynum

own version. From there, we discussed the historical thread that connects Jones County’s insurrection against the Confederacy with the South’s Revolutionary Era struggles over economic divisions, slavery, and religious doctrine. We agreed there is much to be learned about today’s world from the struggles that engulfed plain white and enslaved people during the Civil War.

And, of course, we discussed the 2016 movie version (STX Entertainment)—and how wonderful it was to witness the introduction of this true story into the realm of popular culture via guerrilla leader Newt Knight. But also how satisfying it would be to more fully tell the story of how women—free and enslaved, white, black, and mixed-race—not only directly participated in Jones County’s inner civil war, but in the creation of the mixed-race, biracial community that followed in the wake of the Civil War.




5 replies »

  1. Who coined the phrase, “Free State of Jones” and when was it first used. I grew up in Laurel and hunted arrowheads on Ethel Knight’s land by the Leaf River at Reddoch’s Ferry. Thanks.


    • Thanks for visiting Renegade South, Miles; how cool to have grown up on such historic land!

      I don’t think anyone knows who coined the phrase, “Free State of Jones,” but many point out that it was in use before the Civil War. It seems to have originally referred to the lack of institutions in the county, but evolved during the war to denote Jones County’s vote against secession and its armed resistance to the Confederacy. But again, I don’t think anyone knows the origins for certain.


  2. Thanks for the punctual reply. Growing up in Laurel, I was familiar with the name Newt Knight but not the story. I met Ethel Knight several times. She always struck me as a bit eccentric. She autographed copies of her book, and I read it. Thank you for your efforts to get the real story documented. My brother and I went to the movie and told the ticket seller we were from the Free State of Jones. They weren’t impressed; we saw it in Dallas. As a kid in the ‘60’s, I spent a lot of time visiting my cousins in Soso. I never heard a word about the Knight community there. I recently asked my cousin about it. He said he had heard whispering, but the grownups were pretty tight-lipped. A buddy of mine had an intramural team at Ole Miss named Newt’s Knights. Thanks again for your work and thanks for listening.


    • I’m sorry to be so late in replying, Miles. Life got complicated this past week! Thank you for your appreciation of my book. I met and interviewed Ethel Knight while researching it, and I found her a bit eccentric, too. I’m forever grateful for all the stories that she and Newt’s son Tom put in print, but I do interpret many of them differently. Just as in our own lives, people who share a past often disagree on exactly what happened or what it all meant. I tried to include as many different perspectives as I could.

      My son Randy had a different experience than yours when he went to see the FSOJ movie in Austin—probably because Matthew McConaughey lives there! Randy wore his FSOJ t-shirt, and when asked about it enjoyed telling the person that his mother wrote the book, lol.

      Your 1960s’ experience in Soso is exactly what most people I interviewed told me., especially those who were related to any degree to Newt Knight! Like you, most were glad to finally know the story.

      Thanks so much for your comments.


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