Latest outrage at Ole Miss points to a deeper distress

By Alan Bean

The University of Mississippi just can’t outrun its association with bigotry.

In 2012, a crowd of angry white students expressed their displeasure in the wake of Barack Obama’s re-election.

And just last week, a small group of freshmen wrapped an old Georgia flag bearing the Confederate stars and bars around the statue of James Meredith, the man who integrated “Ole Miss” in 1962.  In case somebody didn’t catch the symbolism, the students then wrapped a noose around the statue’s neck.

None of this bears a passing resemblance to the massive riots sparked by Mr. Meredith’s arrival on campus in 1962 that left two people dead.  But the mix of sophomoric immaturity, alcohol and Old South pride can still be toxic.  According to a CNN story, Kiesha Reeves, a black Ole Miss Senior, told police that, days after the statue incident, someone in a passing car carrying several white students threw alcohol on her and shouted a racial slur.

Mississippi, and its flagship university, have come a long way in the past 52 years; but Old South bigotry continues to smolder, largely because the folks in charge of institutions like Ole Miss routinely fail to denounce the hate with sufficient sincerity.  Everybody knows that racial resentment, in various degrees, continues to stalk the campus and that a small but significant minority of the white student body is working hard to keep the spirit of ’62 alive.  So, what can you do but make the best of a bad situation.  After all, things aren’t nearly as bad as they used to be.

Recent reports suggest that federal charges may be filed against the alleged perpetrators.  Is that really the answer?  If these students are a symptom of a larger social malady, (and they are), sending them to prison for six months or a year will simply create a scapegoat and sweep the nasty business under the rug yet again.

The problem here isn’t overt racial hatred.  The kids who defaced the Meredith statue may have black friends for all I know.

These kids just don’t want to let go of the Southern pride they imbibed with their mother’s milk.

They want to feel good about being white southerners.

They don’t want to reckon with the past or chart a fresh course.  

They just to leave the past in the past, and they can’t do that with Mr. Meredith’s statue standing just a stone’s throw away from the Confederate memorial that still dominates the campus (along with hundreds of city squares and court houses across the Old South).

You have to sympathize with these white kids.  Over yonder stands a tribute to a defiant James Meredith striding boldly into the teeth of vicious white bigotry.  And then there’s the Confederate shrine close by.  Nobody tells you how to make sense of the contradiction.

The University of Mississippi decides to do away with the team name “the Rebels” only to have the legislature pass a law reversing that decision.  The state of Mississippi allows its citizens to celebrate Martin Luther King Day or Robert E. Lee Day, whichever floats your boat.

In a final indignity, the people of Mississippi recently voted to retain a state flag that features the stars and bars.  I am taken aback every time I return to the state and see that flag snapping proudly in the wind.  And I’m white.  How do you expect a historically savvy African American student to feel?

Nowhere is the failure to grapple with the sins of the fathers more palpable than in the churches.  Mississippi segregation, like the slave state it replaced, was an anti-Christian institution that called into question the faith of the planet’s most pious people.  How could followers of Jesus Christ, think and behave with such craven malice?

That is precisely the question the kids who draped the flag and fastened the noose are desperate to avoid.

The most recent outrage at Ole Miss has inspired a spate of journalism, but the best piece by far appears below.  Alan Blinderfeb of the New York Times talked to the right people and elicited comments that are painful to read.  But if you want to feel the travails of the Magnolia State, read them we must.

Students walking to their classes at the University of Mississippi and past a statue of James Meredith, the first black student to enroll at the university. Credit Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

OXFORD, Miss. — On the campus of the University of Mississippi, a few hundred yards from a monument honoring Confederate soldiers, a statue of the university’s first black student, who enrolled in 1962 amid rioting that left two people dead, stands as what administrators call a powerful symbol of progress.

But when two unidentified men placed a noose around the bronze neck of James Meredith this week and left behind a flag with the Confederate battle emblem, it set into motion a new round of soul-searching in a place where past and present still restlessly coexist.

“These events continue to happen semester after semester and year after year,” the student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian, said in an editorial. “All of our actions seem fruitless and impotent, leaving us broken, scared, humiliated and with burning, difficult questions: What we do we do about it? How do we stop these events from transpiring?”

By many measures, the university, which hosted a presidential debate in 2008, is an entirely different place from the one Mr. Meredith entered, one that combines contemporary ambition with seductive charm. Nearly 41 percent of its undergraduates are from outside Mississippi, up from 33 percent a decade ago. Minorities make up nearly a quarter of the student body, and the university’s average ACT score is at its highest level ever.

But reminders of the university’s Jim Crow past continue to permeate its idyllic campus, set among oaks and magnolias and fabled for the Grove, perhaps the most hallowed football tailgating spot in a region full of imitators.

An epithet-saturated demonstration in the aftermath of President Obama’s 2012 re-election resulted in the arrests of two students.

More recently, a September production of “The Laramie Project,” a play about the 1998 murder of a gay college student in Wyoming, gained notoriety after an outbreak of homophobic heckling by audience members.

University officials readily acknowledge the residual intolerance that has so often called attention back to a place where the federal authorities had to force Mr. Meredith’s enrollment. And even as administrators note their successes, they concede that they are confronting a challenge with deep and difficult roots.

“There are some people who see this institution through the eyes of the ‘60s and forever will,” said Donald R. Cole, the university’s assistant to the chancellor for multicultural affairs.

Professor Cole and other administrators, including Daniel W. Jones, the chancellor, contend that while Ole Miss has made considerable headway in its quest to make peace with its past, change can take hold only so quickly.

“The university has taken steps, both collectively and individually, to try to bring ourselves into the mainstream of America on thought about race,” Dr. Jones said. “If you look at how we behave and perform in most ways, we look more like other universities than we have in the past. That being said, you can’t erase the reality that the integration of this university was done in a more violent way than at other universities in the country.”

But many students wonder whether the administration had exhausted its options and argue that the student body needs to mount a more aggressive stand against bigotry.

Federal marshals escorted Mr. Meredith onto the campus in 1962. He called the vandalism this week part of “a breakdown of moral character” in the country. Credit Associated Press

“We don’t take ownership of this university,” Jonece Dunigan, a senior, said. “My life is kind of centered around work and going to school and studying until like 3 in the morning. The reason why these things happen again and again and again is because we allow them to happen again and again and again.”

Ms. Dunigan, who is black, added, “Once the students step up and take ownership of the university and say, ‘This is our place, this is what we stand for,’ we can actually start making progress.”

Fifteen fraternity presidents vowed in a statement to expel any member who participated in the attack on the statue, which they condemned as “a disgusting representation of a racist few.” The presidents said they did not know whether students had been involved in the vandalism.

To others on the campus, university officials could do far more, and they believe that the administration’s careful pace has allowed the reputation of Ole Miss as a racial backwater to continue more than a half-century after Mr. Meredith enrolled.

“The reason why these things happen again and again and again is because we allow them to happen again and again and again,” Jonece Dunigan, a senior, said about the vandalism.

“If you bill yourself as Ole Miss and you call yourself the Rebels and the first thing a visitor to the campus sees is a Confederate monument, whether intentionally or not, it conveys an image,” said Charles W. Eagles, a history professor. “And that image is an image tied to the past, not a 21st-century image.”

Professor Eagles, who wrote what many here believe is the definitive account of the university’s integration, argued that the university must take more forceful action that could anger its supporters.

“If I could do one thing, the place would never be called Ole Miss again,” he said.

In a state, though, where the university’s decision to change its official mascot from Colonel Rebel prompted a bill in the state Legislature to overturn that action, those words come close to heresy. And some, seeing the recent incident as an example of isolated misconduct rather than substantial problems, fear the administration could overreact to it.


Mr. Meredith said the episode would intensify his effort to have his likeness removed from the university’s campus.

“It’s a mistake to base any decision on this, whether it was done by white racists or whether it was a hoax,” said Frank M. Hurdle, an Oxford lawyer and blogger. “Now, if you can show me that several hundred students got together in a meeting and did this, then I will be the first one to say that we need to have some systemic changes made. But we all know that’s not what happened.”

And very little in Mississippi unfolds in entirely expected ways. Mr. Meredith, whose iconoclastic life included a stint as an aide to the arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, says the lessons of the incident have more to do with religion than race or higher education. “What has happened in America, particularly in Mississippi, is a breakdown of moral character,” Mr. Meredith, 80, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a lack of teaching of right and wrong and good and bad, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. That’s what the problem is.”

Mr. Meredith said the “nonsense” episode would intensify his effort to have his likeness removed from the university’s campus.

“It’s a false idol, and it’s an insult not only to God, it’s an insult to me,” Mr. Meredith said.

University officials said they had begun taking steps to consider changes to the campus — where the road encircling the basketball arena remains Confederate Drive — even before this week’s incident.

Dr. Jones said that Edward L. Ayers, the president of the University of Richmond, who worked in the Virginia capital to promote dialogue about the city’s own racial friction, would visit Oxford this weekend “to look at our campus, look at our names and offer us some advice.”

But Ms. Dunigan said changes were also needed on a smaller, more personalized scale, among individuals who might carry with them traditions that quietly cause pain.

“When we tailgate at the Grove, you still see people carrying their Confederate flag,” she said. “They say, ‘That’s my history. That’s my heritage.’ But do they know what that actually symbolizes? It’s still hurtful.”

One thought on “Latest outrage at Ole Miss points to a deeper distress

  1. “When we tailgate at the Grove, you still see people carrying their Confederate flag,” she said. “They say, ‘That’s my history. That’s my heritage.’ But do they know what that actually symbolizes? It’s still hurtful.” Not only students, but state legislators, who will doubtlessly get moving on bills to act for the outraged alumni if the University’s administration really does make the changes it implies to the Campus to make it more conscious of the history of all its students. Won’t any substantive change, like a plaque on or beside the memorial to Confederate Soldiers memorializing the loss and condemning the evil of slavery in the south; be met with all the power of the state Legislature?

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