Some people stop. Some people stare. But many people pass without a glance at the man who has spent the last three years creating conversations in the Lyceum’s backyard.
Correl Hoyle sits in front of the James Meredith statue nearly every day holding encouraging messages written on cheap poster board and playing music on his phone. He’s used to the staring and the nods. He’ll recognize someone from time to time and smile or throw up a hand in greeting.
Hoyle made a promise to himself in 2014, and three years later, he’s still keeping it. When it rains, he moves to a covered place nearby; on the off chance that it snows in Mississippi, he bundles up. But a demonstration that began in anger has turned into activism, he said, and now it’s almost over.
The most common question Hoyle gets is a simple one: What are you doing?
“Surviving,” he says. “Trying to get out of here with a sane mentality. Spreading positivity and well-being around, and trying to graduate.”
The Walnut native doesn’t like the word “protest.” He says it has a negative and angry connotation.
“I’ll leave the aggressive demonstrations to other people,” Hoyle said. “Maybe it’s my personality, but to be in someone’s face and yell at them pushes them away, and no one wants to talk to you. It’s a long, steady process of people seeing me day by day. They get curious. Why am I still out here? Why am I being so persistent?”
At first, Hoyle says he sat at the feet of the statue out of sadness and anger after events on campus. He was on campus when angry students reacted after the reelection of President Barack Obama in 2012, and the jeers at a production of The Laramie Project in fall 2013, and then, finally there was the noose and an old Georgia flag bearing the Confederate battle symbol tied to the statue of James Meredith in spring 2014.
“There were other incidents all along, but (the noose incident) is what made me start doing this,” Hoyle said. “It was a blunt hit. You didn’t really feel it at first – that these were my neighbors. These were my classmates; these are my fellow students.”
At the time, Hoyle was enrolled in an African-American studies class lead by former professor Bryan Cooper Owens. To a class filled with soon-to-be NAACP members and young, concerned students, Owens asked, what will you do about this?
Many students protested. Most students organized marches and die-ins collectively; Hoyle took a different approach.
“You have to look at your target audience,” Hoyle said. “We live on a campus where you have 10 minutes to get to your next class. You have an hour to sit in a line to get something to eat. You don’t have much time to sit down and have a conversation about racism.”
A conversation is exactly what Hoyle wanted. He says he wasn’t intent on changing people; he just wanted to understand them.
“Since the signs I make aren’t necessarily aggressive or demonstrative, people approach me and say ‘Hey, man, it’s a really nice sign you have there. What’s this all about?’… Then a conversation begins, and that’s what I want.”
An invitation to a conversation
It was awkward at first, Hoyle said. During the first days in February 2014, as he sat in the shadow of James Meredith – an intended metaphor – he says people didn’t realize he was demonstrating. So he began bringing signs.
Hoyle keeps all the signs he likes – the ones that have special meaning or the ones he feels “phrased togetherness and universal survival of a people, not just isolation.” There are more than 50 signs stacked in his home. The first one he kept is a quote from MewTwo, a Pokemon character, which says: “The circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”
The stack of signs grows slowly; most signs have messages written on front and back, and most are worn and frayed around the edges. The signs have held up, though, as has Hoyle.
That persistence was hard to sustain, though. After about two months, Hoyle said he decided that he had been there long enough. People got the message, he thought, and perhaps it was time to quit.
“There was a middle-aged white lady who came up to me one day in tears saying it was difficult to explain to her daughter what was going on race-wise. That she couldn’t explain why people were so full of hate. She thanked me from the bottom of her heart,” Hoyle said.
People continued to thank him for his work – though Hoyle said he didn’t consider it work. Once, a girl named Ruby walked up to him, handed him a poem she’d written for him and walked away. He never saw her again, but the poem stays tucked into his wallet.
“That gave me the courage to keep going,” Hoyle said.
Though Hoyle said there were times when his family members were nervous about his activism, he said they’ve supported him through it all.
“My family was concerned at first,” Hoyle said. “They were super supportive about it, but they have concerns.”
Hoyle’s grandfather Bernell Hoyle – his grandchildren call him “Big Daddy” – said he was proud of his grandson’s dedication.
“I really admire him for his efforts. He didn’t quit. He stayed there. He decided to do it, and he stuck with it. I think if a person puts their mind to a thing, they ought to go on and do it.”
Big Daddy said he likes to think Hoyle got some of that dedication from his side of the family. He said when he began preaching in 1969, things were hard, but he built three thriving churches from scratch in the Mississippi Delta.
“I never was afraid,” Big Daddy said. “I don’t believe (Correl) ever was afraid, either. And I was never afraid for him. … We are so proud of him.”
As time wore on, Hoyle’s messages began to change. Along with racial issues on campus, he began to have conversations about society’s other problems or just about classes and personal issues. Hoyle said he began to realize how often people just need to talk.
“This has made me grow so much that it became a humanitarian issue,” Hoyle said. “I don’t want anyone to feel ostracized by what I’m doing. I want this to be inclusive – to have conversations with what’s going on with anybody.”
Into the conversation
People take him up on that. Every day, a few people come by and talk. There are no guidelines when talking to Hoyle, and senior management information systems major Eddie Johnson said that’s what people like about it.
Johnson tries to stop by the statue every day to say hello. He met Hoyle two and a half years ago when Hoyle was still getting used to his daily routine.
“He had a sign,” Johnson said. “There were already a few people gathered around him, and I was wondering; I was inquisitive. So I introduced myself.”
Johnson said the people gathered around Hoyle weren’t doing anything in particular, just talking.
“I feel like Correl creates an environment where (people feel) free and you can discuss anything that’s on your mind,” Johnson said. “I’ve told him before I didn’t think I’d really label him as a protestor.”
Johnson said he feels that classrooms can feel structured and don’t welcome certain types of conversation. Those conversations can be had with Hoyle.
Johnson said conversations with Hoyle have no fact checker; “There’s no one there to critique you.”
Because of the varying nature of the conversations, Johnson said he’s heard from people and perspectives he wouldn’t in his day-to-day routine. What’s more, Johnson said he feels more open to hearing from people who are different.
“I’m more willing to be open to discussion than before,” Johnson said. “Based off of how I’ve lived my life thus far, I’ve just gone along with my own biases plugged in, but I think by meeting Correl, I’ve been able to sit with people with different backgrounds from different cultures and learn a lot more.”
Hoyle said he thinks this – just talking openly and freely with one another – can heal some of the campus’ rifts.
“There are always issues that divide this campus more than it actually should because no one wants to talk,” Hoyle said.
But now, it’s time to leave the conversation. The students who saw the beginning of his demonstration in the spring of 2014 are graduating, and Hoyle is, too. This August, he’ll take the class that will finish his degree in psychology, and it’ll be over.
Once, Hoyle met James Meredith when he attended an event on campus. Meredith said he didn’t know Hoyle personally, but he knew about the student who sits at the feet of his statue every day.
Meredith said he realized the statue was more than just a landmark of the past; it was a rallying point for future issues.
“I can’t say it didn’t have an impact on me. It made me realize it was about more than me,” Meredith said. “He couldn’t be sitting there for my reason. It was his reason.”
That reason, Hoyle said, has been hard to pin down. He’s thought often over the years about the best way to describe what he’s doing to other people.
“I’m not protesting to take up a space and interfere,” Hoyle said. “It’s just kind of an invitation to a conversation, basically.”
Hoyle says he doesn’t know what will happen next. He’s considering graduate school and different jobs, but either way, it’s time for a change.
In a way, though, Hoyle says it doesn’t feel like the end. In the hundreds of conversations he’s had with students on campus, he’s changed. And that change, he said, will go with him wherever he goes next.
*Video by Malachi Shinault