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Movie nudges Mississippi to finally outlaw slavery

1:01 PM, Feb 20, 2013   |    comments
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JACKSON, Miss. -- Oscar-nominated "Lincoln," which depicts the political fight to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, played a role in Mississippi officially ratifying the amendment this month -- a century and a half later.

The story opens, not surprisingly, in a movie theater.

Last November, Dr. Ranjan Batra, associate professor of neurobiology and anatomical sciences at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, saw the Steven Spielberg film and wondered afterward what happened when the states voted on ratification.

That night, Batra -- a native of India who became a U.S. citizen in 2008 -- went on the usconstitution.net website and learned the rest of the story.

After Congress voted for the 13th Amendment in January 1864, the measure went to the states for ratification.

On Dec. 6, 1865, the amendment received the three-fourths' vote it needed when Georgia became the 27th state to ratify it. States that rejected the measure included Delaware, Kentucky, Mississippi and New Jersey.

In the months and years that followed, states continued to ratify the amendment, including those that had initially rejected it. New Jersey ratified the amendment in 1866, Delaware in 1901 and Kentucky in 1976.

But Mississippi had an asterisk. A note read: "Mississippi ratified the amendment in 1995, but because the state never officially notified the U.S. Archivist, the ratification is not official."

The next day, Batra spoke with Ken Sullivan, an anatomical material specialist for the University Medical Center's body donation program.

When Batra mentioned Mississippi had never ratified the amendment, Sullivan responded that he remembered state lawmakers had voted to ratify the amendment in 1995, when he was a high school senior.

Batra shared what he had read online, and Sullivan started researching.

He telephoned the National Archives' Office of the Federal Register, confirmed Mississippi had yet to officially ratify the amendment and found out what paperwork was needed.

That weekend, Sullivan took his wife, Kris, to see "Lincoln," which details the 16th president's fight to abolish slavery once and for all.

"People stood up and applauded at the end of it," he said. "That's the first time I ever saw an audience do that."

Sullivan had tears in his eyes, overwhelmed.

This isn't the first time the movie has caused people to dig into history. Earlier this month, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., called on Steven Spielberg to correct a historical inaccuracy in a key scene suggesting that two of his state's three representatives voted against the amendment in 1865.

Actually, all four voted for it, and screenwriter Tony Kushner acknowledged he took some cinematic license.

Back in Mississippi after seeing the movie, Sullivan knew he would do what he could to ensure his native state officially ratified the amendment.

"I felt very connected to the history," he said.

He tracked down a copy of the 1995 Senate resolution, introduced by state Sen. Hillman Frazier, a Democrat from Jackson who had been upset to learn Mississippi was the only state that had never ratified the 13th Amendment.

The resolution passed both the Mississippi Senate and House.

"It was unanimous," Frazier recalled. "Some didn't vote, but we didn't receive a 'nay' vote."

The last paragraph of the resolution called on the secretary of state to send a copy to the Office of the Federal Register.

Why the copy was never sent in 1995 remains unknown.

"What an amendment to have an error in filing," said Dick Molpus, who served then as secretary of state. "Thanks to Ken Sullivan for being a good citizen in bringing this oversight to light, so it can be corrected."

That "Lincoln" played a role pleases him, he said.

"It was one of the most inspirational movies I've ever seen."

After seeing the film, Sullivan contacted the office of Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who agreed to file the paperwork and make it official.

On Jan. 30, Hosemann sent the Office of the Federal Register a copy of the 1995 Senate resolution, adopted by both the Mississippi Senate and House.

On Feb. 7, Charles A. Barth, director of the Federal Register, wrote back that he had received the resolution: "With this action, the State of Mississippi has ratified the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States."

"We're very deliberate in our state," Frazier said. "We finally got it right."

Hosemann said he is glad to see the chapter closed, adding, "It was long overdue."

To be a part of something historic, to see the 13th Amendment finally ratified pleases Sullivan.

"Now it's officially filed and recorded," he said. "There's no asterisk by Mississippi any more."

 

By Jerry Mitchell

The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger

 

 

Gannett/USA Today

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