There’s a story that all of us have heard and some of us have told, and it goes like this:
The University of Mississippi was once a great school. Its magnolia-shaded campus sheltered one of the few enduring pockets of a genteel and glorious South. But at some point — slowly at first and then all at once — the university was invaded by “elitist, liberal carpetbaggers” seeking to destroy the Southern way of life. They banned the display of Confederate flags in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, all but assassinated a beloved sideline mascot, took down the state flag and axed “Dixie” from the marching band’s repertoire. Now, these invaders have taken aim at a century-old statue. They’re hellbent on the total annihilation of this place, and it’s working. If one wants proof of our demise, he needs to look no further than our once-great, now-foundering football program.
This story is a good one, insofar as it serves the needs of those who tell it. But this story isn’t true.
The truth is that concern for our athletics program has been a cause — not an effect — of the university’s attempts to distance itself from a blatantly Confederate image. This is the case now, with the recent news that top university fundraisers — including Athletics Director Keith Carter — signed a memo in April of last year supporting the relocation of the Confederate statue. And this has been the case for the past half century as the university has gradually worked to divorce its athletics program from Confederate symbols. For more perspective on this history, I spoke with Alex McDaniel, deputy editor at SB Nation.
In the late ‘70s, Steve Sloan took over as head coach of the football team. He was the first coach to speak out against the use of Confederate symbols at football games, arguing that it hurt the university’s ability to recruit talented black athletes. No changes were made, but Sloan helped to start what would become one of the most important conversations in the university’s history.
In 1982, 20 years after James Meredith integrated the university, black students made up 40% of the football roster but just 7% of total enrollment. That year, John Hawkins — the president of the Black Student Union and the first black cheerleader at the University of Mississippi — refused to wave a Confederate flag on the sidelines. “While I’m an Ole Miss cheerleader, I’m still a black man,” said Hawkins at a news conference. “It is my choice that I prefer not to wave one.” His decision brought on widespread anger from white students and alumni at the time. But today, the event is often cited as a turning point in the university’s attitude towards Confederate symbolism in athletics.
Throughout the ‘90s, football and men’s basketball coaches made the same argument that Sloan had made –– Confederate iconography hurt their ability to recruit black athletes. Head football coach Tommy Tuberville believed this so strongly that he openly asked fans to leave their flags at home and visited fraternity houses to ask members to stop hanging them in windows. And many fans agreed. But many of them disagreed — of course — and continued to wave Confederate flags at games until Chancellor Robert Khayat famously banned sticks (and thus flags on flagpoles) from Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
In 1992, Tim Jones — a black member of the pep band — sparked controversy by refusing to sing “Dixie” in the Tad Smith Coliseum. At the time, the basketball program was attracting national attention under the leadership of Coach Rob Evans. This national attention, combined with the controversy, placed mounting pressure on the university to reconsider what place “Dixie” should have on game days. A decade after John Hawkins had declined to wave the Confederate flag, a young black man had once again forced the university to confront its racist festivities.
The decision to retire Colonel Reb as the sideline mascot did not occur in a vacuum. Of course, the moment was no doubt pushed to its crisis by the pressures of national attention that the football program had not felt in years. But behind those momentary pressures was a decades-long effort by the Lyceum to rid itself — and especially its athletics program — of racist associations that were simply unbecoming of a public university competing at the national level. In 2003, Colonel Reb was retired. In 2010, his absence was replaced by Rebel, the Black Bear. In 2018, Rebel was replaced by Tony, the Landshark.
In the ‘80s, “Slow Dixie” became the fight song and remained so for decades. At some time around 2004, some fans began to chant “The South will rise again!” at the end of the song. This became especially vexing for the university when the football program had strong seasons, and the university received national attention. In 2009, Chancellor Dan Jones requested that the marching band stop playing “Slow Dixie” after fans refused to cease chanting at the end of the song. In 2016, after two exceptionally strong seasons under head coach Hugh Freeze, the university dropped all iterations of “Dixie” from game-day festivities.
It’s understandable why some might want to blame a shadowy cabal of outsiders for the changes that have been made on this campus. It’s an easy lie to believe. But the truth is that every time this university has been forced to reckon with its Confederate past and present, it has chosen progress because of — and not in spite of — its vested interest in athletics. Conversations about our troubled past and present might end with talk of dignity and inclusion, but they probably started with a much colder calculus of fundraising, recruiting and branding.
It’s deeply saddening and frankly embarrassing that this institution did not do the right thing for the right reasons a long time ago. But when principled concerns have fallen short, pragmatic ones have gained traction. Whenever the university clings to the Confederacy, it hemorrhages unknowable sums of cash, talent and respect — and the powers that be have known this for a long time. A University of Mississippi with Confederate flags and Colonel Reb and the state flag and “Dixie” would not only be morally bankrupt but perhaps actually bankrupt. Don’t forget that the next time you hear someone breathe the words “statue” and “football” in the same sentence.
John Hydrisko is a junior English, philosophy and history triple major from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.