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Celebrating true Southern heritage in April instead of the Confederacy

This April will see Confederate Heritage Month or similar observances occurring in some states. From the first secessionist shots fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865, Confederates fought for slavery and white supremacy. That is Confederate heritage. It is not Southern heritage.

Those who glorify the Confederacy as “Southern heritage” obscure a rich Southern history that is not about white supremacy but is something that all Southerners can be proud of. This month, instead of celebrating Confederate heritage, let’s celebrate the anniversaries of these Southern contributions to justice and culture in the U.S.

April 1, 1891

The Coal Creek War begins in Tennessee.

Miners stand in front of shaft opening blocked by rail car.
A rebellion by coal miners in 1891 helped to end the practice of leasing of incarcerated people to work in mines in Tennessee. (Credit: Wikicommons)

In the 1890s, on the eastern fringe of the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee, mine owners began to replace wage-earning miners with incarcerated people leased from the state prisons. Wage laborers and the incarcerated workers rebelled against this unjust system. After a year of struggle, which sadly erupted into deadly armed violence, Tennessee became one of the first states to end the leasing of incarcerated people. Folk songs like “Coal Creek March” and “Buddy Won’t You Roll Down the Line?” commemorate the Coal Creek War.

April 3, 1963

The Birmingham Campaign begins in Alabama.

Women, seated at a table, writing.
A group of women join the Birmingham Campaign, which included protests, sit-ins and a boycott of local businesses in Birmingham, Alabama. (Credit: Marion S. Trikosko, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress)

Led by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders in Birmingham, Alabama, the Birmingham Campaign used boycotts and sit-ins to demand desegregation. Eugene “Bull” Connor, the public safety commissioner, ordered police to turn fire hoses and dogs on demonstrators. The city arrested activists in droves, including King, whose “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” became an important document for social justice and civil disobedience. As a result of the campaign, President John F. Kennedy declared, “The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased the cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.”

Muddy Waters at microphone strums an electric guitar.
Musician Muddy Waters influenced countless rock and blues artists. (Credit: Wikicommons)

April 4, 1913 or 1915

Blues musician Muddy Waters is born in Mississippi.

Born McKinley Morganfield, blues musician Muddy Waters was a child of the Mississippi Delta who became one of the greatest influences in rock and blues history. In 1941, folklorist Alan Lomax recorded Waters at his home in Mississippi for the Library of Congress. In 1943, Waters headed up U.S. Highway 61, “the blues highway,” and moved to Chicago where he helped create the Chicago blues sound. Waters influenced countless rock and blues stars like Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. The Rolling Stones took their name from his song “Rollin’ Stone.”

April 5, 1939

Civil rights activist Bob Zellner is born in Florida.

Bob Zellner was born in the Florida Panhandle town of Jay and grew up in Alabama. Zellner, whose paternal grandfather was a Klansman and whose father eventually left the Klan, joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights Movement, becoming the first white Southerner to be a field organizer. Zellner traveled across the South demonstrating against racial injustice and training activists in nonviolent action. He was arrested nearly 20 times and was beaten on several occasions. Zellner helped found Grass Roots Organizing Work, a white antiracist coalition. His memoir, Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement, documents his life fighting for racial justice.

April 9, 1865

The Civil War ends with Union victory in Virginia.

Oil painting depicts the surrender of Confederate Army General Robert E Lee to Union Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant in Northern Virginia.
An oil painting by Thomas Nast depicts Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendering to Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, marking the end of the Civil War. (Credit: Wikicommons)

All Southerners should be proud of the Black and white Southerners who fought for the Union in the Civil War. It’s believed that 100,000 white Southerners and at least that many Black Southerners fought for the Union in defense of liberty. Their service helped secure what President Abraham Lincoln described as a “new birth of freedom” for the U.S. When Southerners commemorate the Civil War, they should honor these brave soldiers, who are largely ignored when it comes to Civil War memorials in the South.

April 10, 1926

Welfare rights activist Johnnie Tillmon is born in Arkansas.

The daughter of sharecroppers, Johnnie Tillmon founded in 1963 what would eventually become the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), which advocated on behalf of people, particularly women and children, to ensure a sufficient income, justice, dignity and participation in the democratic process. Tillmon, a native of Scott, Arkansas, partnered with labor and civil rights groups like the United Farm Workers and the Congress of Racial Equality to fight for dignity, social welfare and economic determination for people in poverty. The NWRO played an important role in organizing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign.

A Phillip Randolph
A. Philip Randolph helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice in 1963. (Credit: Wikicommons)

April 15, 1889

Labor and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph is born in Florida.

A. Philip Randolph established the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, the first Black labor union to receive an American Federation of Labor charter. A native of Crescent City, Florida, he led organizing efforts that forced President Franklin Roosevelt to ban employment discrimination in defense industries during World War II. Randoph’s continued efforts pressured President Harry Truman to ban discrimination in federal hiring practices and to integrate the U.S. military. Randolph, along with Bayard Rustin, organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice in 1963. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Randolph the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.

April 16, 1968

The Memphis sanitation workers strike ends in Tennessee.

People hold signs that read "I Am A Man" outside Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee.
Standing in front of the former Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Memphis sanitation workers Elmore Nickelberry, 76, center, and his son, Terence, left, hold replicas of the placard used by strikers in Memphis, Tennessee. (Credit: Alamy Photos)

After two sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, were crushed to death by defective equipment in early 1968, their fellow workers went on strike to demand safer working conditions and better wages. The strike drew support from national civil rights and labor leaders, including King and Walter Reuther. On April 4, King was assassinated while advocating economic equality and social justice in solidarity with striking workers in Memphis. The workers won union recognition and promise of a wage increase less than two weeks later.

Willie Nelson playing guitar.
Musician Willie Nelson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993. (Credit: Wikicommons)

April 29, 1933

Country musician Willie Nelson is born in Texas.

Hailing from the Texas Hill Country, Willie Nelson, in his long musical career, has been a key figure in one of the best aspects of Southern heritage – country music. This music draws on Celtic folk music, Tejano and Mexican music, and African American music – especially when it uses the banjo, an instrument enslaved people brought from Africa. Nelson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993.

April 30, 1972

The Mississippi poultry workers’ strike ends.

Man holds rooster.
Mississippi poultry workers went on strike in 1972 seeking better wages. (Credit: Library of Congress)

Black and white poultry packers making $1.60 an hour walked off the job in Forest, Mississippi, demanding a 25-cent raise, collective bargaining and two weeks of paid vacation. The strike built a foundation for later success by showing that workers could organize against tremendous odds. The poultry workers stood up for their rights despite violence and retaliation from bosses, and they responded with solidarity when bosses attempted to pit Black and white co-workers against each other.

Rivka Maizlish is a senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.

Illustration at top: Although some states choose to glorify the Confederacy’s fight for slavery and white supremacy, several anniversaries in April exemplify the South’s contributions to justice and culture in the U.S. (SPLC)