Twenty-nine months after the James Meredith statue on campus was vandalized, the U.S. District Court has sentenced the final man being charged in relation to the crime.
The statue was installed in 2002 to commemorate the 40-year anniversary of the university’s integration by Meredith in 1962. In February 2014, the statue was vandalized with a noose and a pre-2003 Georgia flag that contained a Confederate battle emblem.
Last Thursday Austin Reed Edenfield entered the court surrounded by his two lawyers and his parents.
Once upstairs, he sat in courtroom 3 East, the same courtroom where he had testified against coconspirator Graeme Phillip Harris at his sentencing in September 2015.
The sentencing lasted less than 20 minutes and Judge Michael Mills sentenced Edenfield to a year’s probation and 50 hours of community service.
He, like Harris, was charged with using a threat of force to intimidate black students and employees by putting a noose on the James Meredith statue.
Neither Edenfield nor Harris was sentenced to the maximum punishment of a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
At his sentencing, Edenfield said he takes full responsibility for his actions, apologizing to Meredith, the university and his family.
His defense lawyers said Edenfield has nothing in his history to suggest this would have ever happened and that he has done what he could to make amends.
Edenfield now attends school in his home state of Georgia, works 25 hours a week, and has helped his family with the defense cost.
The prosecutors recommended probation. They said Edenfield provided assistance in prosecution of the case, and drove to Oxford from Georgia on his own accord and budget to be called as a witness in Harris’ sentencing last year.
Once Edenfield, the defense lawyers and the prosecution spoke, it was Judge Mills’ turn.
Mills lectured Edenfield on similar points he had told Harris at his sentencing.
“When I first learned of what you had done, I didn’t know who had done it at the time but it was absolutely heartbreaking,” Mills said. “I don’t know where it comes from.”
Mills said the crime was an act of terrorism, and it must come from somewhere dark.
“I don’t think we can undo what was done, but maybe we can look to the future,” Mills said. He said he wanted Edenfield and others watching the case to learn from this.
Then he turned to Edenfield and asked what the last book he read was.
Edenfield paused and admitted he didn’t know.
“I think that’s part of the problem,” Mills said. He handed Edenfield a copy of “The Light in August” by William Faulkner.
Mills said he didn’t have to read the entirety of the novel but to read chapter 19 and turn a 5-page, handwritten book report on it.
“I want you to do that not for me but for yourself,” Mills said to Edenfield.
Mills said the sentence should be tailored to the individual.
“The crime is serious but the punishment should fit the individual,” Mills said. He said Edenfield showed remorse, had been cooperative and honest, with no previous criminal history. He also said he took into account the letters Edenfield’s parents and siblings had sent him.
“You’ve taken on the responsibility of an adult, and you deserve credit for that,” Mills said.
Mills gave Edenfield his sentencing then told him he didn’t want to see him back in the courtroom but looks forward to hearing from him before adjourning.
Harris was sentenced to six months in minimum-security federal prison and 100 hours of community service. He was released from prison earlier this month.
Harris, unlike Edenfield, had charges relating to alcohol on his record, multiple traffic violations and had previously displayed aggressive behavior.
Harris had gone back to college in Georgia as well, so Mills allowed him to finish the semester and begin his six-month sentence in January.
There was a third freshman involved, but prosecutors said he was never charged since his role was minimal and he cooperated with the investigation.
All three men withdrew from Ole Miss and the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity they were members of permanently closed its chapter on campus.
Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor for student affairs, was at both men’s sentencings with representatives from the University Police Department.
She said Edenfield’s sentencing created a sense of finality, and the judge’s rulings further validated the seriousness of the crime.
“For me, it has been about upholding our campus policies, legal obligations and the Creed,” LaBanc said. “It was critically important to address the revolting behavior, while also supporting students, faculty, and staff that were impacted. We needed our campus community to understand how serious we were taking the threat so a sense of safety could more quickly return.”
She said it was a relief to know the university had the support and coordination of the FBI and investment of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
LaBanc said as a white woman with privilege it is hard to fully answer whether race relations on campus have improved since the vandalism.
“I hope so, but relationships take a sustained commitment, and our campus community evolves every year,” LaBanc said. “There is always work to be done. What I do know is that our committed staff works every day to make our campus an inclusive and safe community for all.”
Shortly after the vandalism in 2014, psychology major Correl Hoyle sat in front of the Meredith statue for an hour every day, Monday through Friday weather permitting. He’s done so for the better part of two years and says he will continue to do so during his last year of undergrad.
He still remembers what it was like on campus in the days after the noose was found on the statue.
“Into the week, you could feel racial tension on campus, unrest among students, and sometimes even indifference,” Hoyle said. “I decided to take a more passive-aggressive approach. In my mind, protesting and shouting did little for the university.”
He said he receives a mix of reactions from people passing by from smiling faces to confused or judging glares but has met many unique people over the semesters.
“You may not always agree with each other, but everyone’s words hold merit,” Hoyle said. “This is much more than a race issue, this is an us issue.”
Hoyle said there is still tension on campus and around the world but believes that in the 50 years since Meredith integrated the university, it has changed for the better.
“I believe that strong wills and gentle hearts will prevail through turmoil,” Hoyle said.
He has an optimistic hope for the future of the university.
“I hope the university one day crawls out of the dark stigma of being a racially charged environment,” Hoyle said. “The university is growing. It is changing. It is becoming more accepting and aware. It is becoming even greater than Mr. Meredith and all other alumni have always known it to be.”
He said he doesn’t want to leave a legacy behind but wants his demonstration to cause conversation among students, faculty and staff and for everyone to put a little more consideration into their day.
Since the vandalism, diversity efforts at the university have increased.
Former Chancellor Dan Jones released a comprehensive action plan to foster a more inclusive, welcoming environment on campus in August 2014. The plan created a new position for a vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion and laid out the beginnings of a plan to deal with issues of race and other dimensions of diversity on campus. A national search to fill the position is ongoing.
The UM NAACP led a movement which resulted in the end of the Mississippi flag being flown on campus because its current design contains a Confederate battle emblem.
Current Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter established the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Contextualization which is set up to work on contextualization projects like the plaque in front of the Confederate solider statue in the Circle.
The Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement, the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, other groups and efforts like the first Lavender Graduation Ceremony last semester, Hijab Day, cultural history months, are taking charge on promoting the conversation around diversity on campus.
– Lana Ferguson