OXFORD — Legislation to change the way Mississippi Department of Archives and History trustees are appointed seems like another attempt to fix something that isn’t broken.
Proponents of Senate Bill 2727, which has passed the Senate, claim it will provide more accountability. Opponents say it will politicize the board.
MDAH, founded in 1902, is the second-oldest state department of archives and history in the nation. It preserves and provides access to the archival resources of the state, administers museums and historic sites, and oversees programs for historic preservation, government records and publications.
It’s governed by a nine-member board of trustees whose duties include hiring a director.
Senate Bill 2727, if passed by the House, would provide that the governor and lieutenant governor alternate appointing new MDAH trustees for six-year terms. The appointments would be confirmed or rejected by the Senate.
Presently, MDAH trustees themselves approve new members when someone resigns or when a term ends. The selection is subject to confirmation by the Senate.
Proponents of the change say the board is self-perpetuating, an argument that makes sense. However, the Senate now has the option to approve or reject nominees.
To my knowledge, MDAH has been free of scandal and well run over the years. Compared to records of some other state agencies to which the governor and lieutenant governor make appointments, I doubt there would be any more accountability under the proposed change. It could, however, inject more politics into the agency.
MDAH, responsible for preserving historical records, has its own storied history.
Wikipedia notes it “developed from the Mississippi Historical Society in the interest of promoting and protecting ‘Southern Identity’ through acquisition and preservation of historical records, especially those records pertaining to the American Civil War.”
Obviously, it has developed far beyond that original mission including, among other things, now operating a civil rights museum.
Its trustees have included former Gov. William Winter, who joined the MDAH board in 1957 and was elected president in 1969, serving in that role until 2007. During that time, he oversaw the opening of the Eudora Welty House, the restoration of the Old Capitol, and the construction of a state-of-the-art archives building now named for him.
Two notable and long-serving MDAH directors were William D. McCain and Charlotte Capers.
Capers, MDAH’s director from 1955 to 1969, was the first woman to head a state agency in Mississippi. She worked in various capacities for MDAH for 45 years, and in 1983, the Mississippi Legislature authorized the trustees to rename the Archives and History building in her honor.
She was acting director from 1943 to 1945 while McCain was on active duty in World War II and became the director in 1955 when McCain, who had been director since 1938, resigned to become president of what was then Mississippi Southern College.
A noted historian and a major general in the National Guard, McCain also was an avowed segregationist, a leader in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and was highly influential in state politics.
He presided over tremendous growth at what became the University of Southern Mississippi during his tenure.
But his remarkable career at USM was tarnished by the unjust treatment of Clyde Kennard, a Black veteran of the Korean War who unsuccessfully tried to enroll at USM. For his efforts, Kennard was falsely accused of criminal charges, convicted and sent to Parchman, where he became ill with cancer. He was paroled in January 1963, six months before he died.
In 2005, after publication of evidence that Kennard was framed, a movement began to have him posthumously pardoned. Gov. Haley Barbour refused a pardon but did cooperate in petitioning the court to review Kennard’s case. In 2006, the conviction was overturned.
McCain was never directly linked to the false charges against Kennard, but it happened under his watch.
It’s ironic that the institution he helped grow now has a Black president.
Dunagin, who lives in Oxford, is a retired longtime Mississippi newspaperman.