The Confederacy Still Haunts the Campus of Ole Miss

Phil McCausland, NBC News, November 16, 2017

When a drunken driver accidentally plowed into the Confederate statue on the University of Mississippi’s campus in September, the school had a choice: get rid of the statue and join the national movement erasing Confederate heritage, or pay to repair it.

The school administration chose the latter option, although the state attorney general’s office gave it permission to move the monument. The university shelled out more than $10,000 in private funds from the school’s foundation to fix the base that holds the figure of a nameless Confederate soldier, erected in 1906 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

And it replaced a plaque that explains why the statue was first built, including these words: “It must also remind us that the defeat of the Confederacy actually meant freedom for millions of people.”

The decision illustrated the contentious balancing act that Ole Miss has pursued since the university integrated in 1962, which led to riots, tear gas, thrown bricks and two murders. The school wants to appeal to a new diverse student base without disenfranchising its conservative students, or infuriating the wealthy political groups and alumni that are pressuring the university to uphold its white heritage.

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But many black students, who make up 13.1 percent of the undergraduate class, deeply resent the presence of a monument they believe glorifies a history of oppression, just as conservative white students have fought to keep alive the mementos of the Confederacy. Today the statue is just the latest open wound on a campus covered with the scars of a difficult racial history.

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Confederate Roots

At Ole Miss, many students say another wave of racial turmoil is inevitable, especially since much of the combative dialogue between two diametrically opposed activist communities is about divisive Southern symbols and traditions.

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But the past five years have been particularly arduous for Ole Miss’s public image.

In 2012, in the midst of the school’s celebration of 50 years of integration, black and white students clashed on election night when Barack Obama secured a second term.

Two students tied a noose and a flag that carried the Confederate symbol to the campus’s statue of Meredith in 2014. They were later arrested, charged and found guilty of federal hate crimes.

More recently, white students have petitioned for the return of Colonel Reb, the overtly Confederate school sports mascot — a white plantation owner formerly dressed in a Confederate uniform — that was removed from the sidelines of games almost 15 years ago. They have demanded that the Mississippi flag be flown despite the Confederate symbol it carries, and describe their heartache that the school band is no longer allowed to play the Confederate battle hymn “Dixie” before football games.

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“[The administration] is trying to please the media and stuff from other parts of the country instead of trying to please their students and alumni and fans,” [student president of the Colonel Reb Foundation] added.

But many black and white students want these symbols and elements of Southern heritage gone. They say it doesn’t depict their Mississippi, and those traditions don’t compel them to attend the state’s flagship university.

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According to members of the student body, faculty and the administration, the flurry of incidents has led to the growth of liberal and conservative activism.

The Black Student Struggle

Senior journalism major Ariel Cobbert, who is black, said her parents feared for her safety when she told them she planned to attend the state’s flagship school. They preferred she attend one of the state’s historically black universities, she said, but Ole Miss offered her a full scholarship.

“Because they weren’t necessarily comfortable with me coming here, when I turned 21 my dad got me to get my concealed-carry license,” Cobbert said.

Mississippi’s population is nearly 38 percent black, higher than any other state, but Ole Miss’ black student body is less than half that share. And the percentage of black students in undergraduate programs has only decreased 7.7 percent over the past five years after the rash of racial incidents.

Black students described a tense environment filled with overt harassment and subtle micro-aggressions. Some said they were afraid to walk alone at night and that they felt unwelcome at Ole Miss’s many publicized traditions, such as football game tailgates and fraternity parties.

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Nevertheless, many of those same students said they wanted to attend Ole Miss, despite their families’ advice, to combat the problems they see at the university and develop an activist community.

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Dr. James Thomas, a sociology professor and the NAACP faculty adviser, said many activist students were surprised when a substantial backlash developed to the flag’s removal, much of it led online by a new organization called Our State Flag Foundation.

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Some black students said their next mission is to persuade the school to adopt a hate-speech policy. They would start with teach-ins for interested students and move to protests if necessary.

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“Obviously if we’re ignored,” [teh leader of Students Against Social Injustice] said, “we’ll see what happens.”

A Conservative Backlash

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Many students said such changes occurred out of fear that the voices of the majority were being stifled, voices that they said wanted to hold on to a Southern heritage.

Coco McDonnell, an outspoken conservative student senator who wrote a bill to suspend the school’s committee that adds context to Confederate symbols, said activists attend popular student, alumni and visitor events to get the word out about their agenda. She said the Our State Flag Foundation drives much of that work.

“There have been a lot of efforts made by students and alumni and people within the Ole Miss community and outside the Ole Miss community to bring the state flag back to campus,” she said. “You’ll see in the grove every game-day weekend, stickers are passed out that say, ‘Ole Miss, fly your state flag.’”

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“There’s a general feeling that the establishment elites are leftists and running our institutions, whereas the people they want to govern are all conservatives,” said [Howie] Morgan, who also helped found the Colonel Reb Foundation in 2003. “That allows us to have a lot of like-minded individuals among organizations not only on the campus of Ole Miss but also throughout Mississippi.”

Our State Flag Foundation is listed as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, which means it does not have to reveal its donor list. But Morgan readily claims he courts the same big-money donors as the university. He said many wealthy alumni were unhappy about the university shedding its controversial past.

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“[Conservatives] were scared to share their views because they didn’t want to be labeled a bigot or a racist or whatever,” said Wood. “But I think that’s changed with, not just the election of Donald Trump, but the whole nation I think is headed toward the conservative movement.”

Where the University is Headed

While conservative and liberal students openly debated each other on the campus’s sidewalks over the past year, the University of Mississippi has pursued introspection.

School officials knew there were many dormant, foundational and — at times — hidden Confederate legacies that haunt the corners of this campus. In the summer of 2016, the university created a committee to conduct a thorough inspection of every name, symbol and icon on the school’s more than 3,500 acres.

This group of faculty, alumni and a single student {snip} identified buildings named for problematic figures, such as James Vardaman, governor of Mississippi in the early years of the 20th century, who campaigned on a policy of endorsing lynching as a means to promote white supremacy. There are also numerous buildings erected by slave labor.

The school will rename the Vardaman building, but, for the most part, the school chose to erect plaques that provide historic context rather than removing names or expunging memories.

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The administration also adopted a diversity plan that leads with a difficult question: How does the school convince potential minority students and the country that it has not only moved past its stormy racial history but is now welcoming and safe for a diverse student population?

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But, using Ole Miss’s own enrollment metrics, those numbers are misleading, as their black undergraduate population has dropped more than 7 percent while the white student population has grown 23 percent.

Whitman Smith, the director of admissions, said he hopes the state’s flagship university will eventually reflect the population of the state. He explained the school has raised its requirements for out-of-state students, who are mostly white, and added a number of new endeavors to attract in-state black students — such as the Mississippi Outreach to Scholastic Talent Conference, which invites rising black high school seniors to visit and explore opportunities on campus.

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