Even though years had passed since James Meredith took one of the most infamous steps on campus, the lingering effects of racism didn’t completely subside.
John Hawkins, Ole Miss’ first black cheerleader, came under fire when he refused to wave the confederate flag after he made the team in 1982. Clara Bibbs, Hawkins’ friend and also an African-American, auditioned but did not make the team.
“When I made the team, it was totally a fluke,” Hawkins said. “I was trying to be supportive of and helpful for my friend Clara.”
As a member of the cheerleading team, Hawkins said his teammates treated him fairly and were very happy for him. However, it took time for the university to accept him.
Kitty Dumas, now a writer and communications consultant at KITCOM, wrote about Hawkins’ ordeal during her time as a writer for The Daily Mississippian.
“There were a lot of people who saw that as a challenge,” Dumas said. “A challenge to the way of life, not just Ole Miss tradition, but the South and the Confederacy,” she said.
Hawkins never wavered, despite the distractions and comments hurled his way. He focused on trying to make a change.
“I was never really concerned about any threats or anything of that nature; I was focused on being a student,” he said. “I initially wanted to change the university’s mindset.”
From a historical point of view, it was only 20 years after the school had integrated. Dumas was able to realize, however, that the integration period was not long ago.
“When he won, that brought a lot of national press to the campus because it was yet another milestone for the university,” Dumas said.
“He had a perfect storm occurring, he was ripping the scalp off a situation, that underneath, was still charged.” At this time, the Ole Miss cheerleading team had a notorious tradition that everyone set their eyes on.
“The question was, was he going to raise the flag,” Dumas said. Hawkins’ response was straightforward with no indecisiveness: “No."
“The one thing in life you will know about me is that I am a principle-based person,” he said. “If you base your values on strong principles, you can never second-guess any decision that you make.”
As Hawkins decision made the headlines, the editor of the DM at that time, Gary Parker, made the decision to place a picture of the Confederate flag on the masthead.
“To put it on the front page, I felt he was crossing the ethical lines of the journalistic boundary,” Dumas said. “I don’t remember knowing he was going to do that, but when it was done, it was done.”
Dumas didn’t see Parker as a person who was out throwing rocks, waving confederate flags and threatening people.
“Every person’s action, it’s consequences for those,” Dumas said. “But maybe that was an unintended purpose for something that seemed wrong at the time that ended up helping by strengthening the movement against it.”
Looking back at all that unfolded, Hawkins knew his choice would have a polarizing affect.
“In hindsight, I never would have tried out,” Hawkins said. “It had its ups and downs, but I can now see I created a vision for change.”
Dumas said you can never overestimate the value of Hawkins’ efforts.
“It seems like Ole Miss has gotten passed its past,” she said. “Maybe not completely, but I think in a big way. “You have to know where you’ve been before you know where you’re going, and I think the university has done that; and that has allowed it to move on.”
Hawkins, now the chief operating oOfficer and board member at Management Performance International and the President at Pathfinder Management Consulting, offered similar sentiments about the growth of the university.
“The university is continuously making progress to redefine its image, to redefine its vision and to redefine its structure,” he said. “Ole Miss’ future is brighter than its past.”
He added that the 50th anniversary of integration “is a great example of how the university has shown maturity to look back on a great milestone.”
The New York Times is expected to publish an op-ed piece from Dumas this weekend on the integration anniversary at Ole Miss.