While Missouri has become synonymous around the world with racial unrest, could the roots of racial animosity in this now infamous state actually stretch back to Missouri’s schizophrenic status during the Civil War as a member of both the Confederacy and the Union?
That’s the intriguing premise explored in a piece on Al Jazeera America by writer Ryan Schuessler, who claims the extreme degree of racial polarization in the state is far older than the questions about what happened on that Ferguson street on August 9 between white police officer Darren Wilson and Black teenager Michael Brown. He says it goes all the way back to the identity crisis that was born during the Civil War, when Missouri was claimed by both the Union and the Confederacy and is the 24th and 12th star on their respective flags.
Schuessler illustrated the racial hostilities that still flow through the state by using the example of what happened when the NAACP led a march last month from Ferguson to the state capital in Jefferson City, passing through Gasconade County.
“They [marchers] found anything but a warm welcome from the residents of Rosebud, a tiny town of about 400 in the eastern midsection of the state,” he writes. “A Confederate flag was raised. Some left fried chicken, watermelon and 40-ounce cans of beer.”
The schism in Missouri can be traced by assessing who pronounces the state’s name as “Missour-ee” and as “Missour-uh.” The former is the pronunciation of the Union adherents; the latter is favored by the former members of the Confederacy.
For many of the people from Missour-uh, a big issue is the flying and placement of the Confederate flag. The flag is especially important to the Missouri Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that advocates for the preservation of Confederate history in the United States. Putting the flag in as many places as possible is like a full-time job for the members of the group. They want it to be put back up at the cemetery at the Missouri Confederate Memorial State Historic Site in Higginsville.
Asked about whether they understand how the Confederate flag can upset African-Americans who connect it to the institution of slavery, these men have a ready-made answer.
Tim Borron of Independence, Missouri, pointed to a hand-made sign that said, “If 75,000 men of color fought for this flag, how can it be called racist?”
But historians say just a small fraction of Black Confederates were allowed to carry arms, with many coerced or forced into serving, according to Schuessler, and most, perhaps 50,000, working as unarmed laborers.
“By the same token, if you want to deem a flag racist, you have to deem that flag racist,” Borron added, pointing to a U.S. flag flying nearby. “Because it flew over the slave ships.”
While the Confederate groups are pushing for their flag, there are other Missouri residents like Olive Anderson of Kansas City, who push for the preservation of historical Union sites, like the battlefield at Island Mound, where Anderson’s great-great grandfather, born into slavery and later freed, fought with the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. It was the first unit of African-Americans to fight in the Civil War.
People like Anderson refer to their state as “Missour-ee” —the state that remained in the Union despite being a slave state.
“Finally, we’re getting some recognition,” Anderson said of her great-great grandfather’s unit. “They were the first to fight, and we’ve got people working hard to keep that story out there, that they were the first [Black soldiers] to fight in the Civil War.”
Missouri contains all the conflicts of America, all rolled into one state. As Schuessler writes, “It has been said that as Missouri goes, so goes the nation. The Civil War was being fought in Missouri before the Confederacy was even formed. It’s a state that has voted for the winning presidential candidate in all but three elections since 1904. The 2008 and 2012 elections were close nationwide and even closer in Missouri. In it, every imaginable divide—urban/rural, black/white, rich/poor— could be found within blocks of each other.
“And now protests that swept the nation sprang from a movement that has its origins in a once-overlooked suburb of St. Louis. As Missouri goes, so goes the nation.”