148 years later: Man helps finalize ratification paperwork

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, March 10, 2013

He opened the envelope and was holding a piece of history in his hands – a piece of history he’d helped write.

A full 148 years after the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery had been formally adopted and 18 years after Mississippi had belatedly but symbolically voted to ratify the amendment, Ken Sullivan saw the documents attesting that a clerical oversight had been rectified and Mississippi’s approval of the amendment formalized.

It was only a few weeks ago in February that Sullivan, a Copiah County native and Wesson resident, saw these words, months after he’d personally initiated the process that led to the letter that day in his mailbox.

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“It was a very strange feeling to be tied into that of history,” Sullivan said, speaking from his Wesson home.

He later received another letter, this one from acclaimed film director Steven Spielberg. It was Spielberg’s recent film “Lincoln” that led Sullivan to the problem with Mississippi’s ratification of the 13th amendment.

The passage of that amendment through the U.S. Congress comprises much of the plot of “Lincoln.”

Sullivan, who works with the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s body donation program, mentioned to a coworker, Dr. Ranjan Batra, he planned to see “Lincoln.” Batra had already seen the film and done some research and mentioned to Sullivan that Mississippi had apparently never formally ratified the amendment.

Sullivan thought he remembered differently.

“I remembered in 1995, I was a senior here at Crystal Springs High School,” Sullivan said. “I remember the legislature voting on it and passing a resolution.”

Sullivan did a little research on his own, determining from his research that the state had approved the resolution but never filed documentation of the resolution with the federal archivist.

He pulled a copy of the state’s 1995 resolution, which did contain instructions to submit documentation of the ratification to the Office of the Federal Register at the archives.

Sullivan’s next move was to call the Federal Archives in Washington. He didn’t feel optimistic.

“I thought, I’m never going to get anybody,” he said.

He eventually got through to an archivist who told Sullivan he’d check to see if the archives had ever received the appropriate documents attesting to Mississippi’s ratification of the amendment.

Further research eventually determined the archivist had not received the necessary paperwork.

In the interim, Sullivan saw Lincoln at the Malco theater in Madison Dec. 1, a viewing he described as overwhelming and emotional.

“I sat there thinking, wow,” Sullivan said. “Lincoln started this in 1865, and there’s one last little piece.”

Sullivan next contacted the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office to inform the agency of the apparent oversight. A little digging by the office confirmed the research Sullivan had already done. An accidental oversight apparently had left the final step undone.

And then, after a few months to get everything in order, Sullivan was sent a copy of the notice by the federal register asserting Mississippi’s ratification of the 13th amendment.

He knew some news reports would frame the event as another example of Mississippi’s lagging record of civil rights and race relations, but he also believed this was a loose end he couldn’t leave undone.

“Because it’s Mississippi, there’s a lot of emotion tied into it,” he said. “Better to go ahead and bite the bullet and get it done now.”

Even now, telling the story for what may be the many hundredth time and surrounded by the documents of his research, the notice from the federal register and a letter from Spielberg congratulating him for his role in the approval, the vibrancy of Sullivan’s emotions remain clear in his voice.

“It’s truly overwhelming to know I was going to be able to touch a part of the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution,” he said.