“Black Lives Matter.” “Take it Down.” “A Change Gonna Come.”
These phrases plastered on signs and other written calls to action were the only words present during a silent Black History Month March today, which marks first public demonstration ahead of this weekend’s on-campus rally by two pro-Confederate groups.
Demonstrators met in the entrance of Lamar Hall, marched through the rain to the edge of the Circle and then gathered around the Confederate statue at the heart of the Ole Miss campus. The crowd of protesters, observers and university police had grown to more than 100 people by the time the protest reached the Circle.
The march comes just two days before pro-Confederate groups intend to rally on campus to protest the university’s removal of the state flag, which contains the Confederate battle emblem, and efforts to contextualize Confederate symbols.
Jarrius Adams, president of the University of Mississippi Gospel Choir, spoke to the large crowd near the statue and criticized the university’s decision to allow the statue to remain in the center of campus. He said the march had been planned since last semester, but it had taken on an entirely different meaning ahead of the neo-Confederate rallies.
“If symbols such as this statue don’t represent hate, racism and white supremacy, why do they attract these types of people?” Adams asked. “Why are these types of people going out of their way to disrupt the traffic flow and events on our campus?”
Adams said the statue is one of the many reasons minority students avoid the Ole Miss campus.
“I sometimes pass by this statue without giving it a second thought …, but then there are times when I’m reminded of the truth, when I think about all the people who choose not to visit our campus because of our exclusionary symbols,” Adams said.
During Adams’s speech, at least ten officers from the University Police Department stood near the outskirts of the crowd. An officer told a reporter from The Daily Mississippian that the group of student protesters had reached out to UPD requesting its presence.
“I was briefed on (this protest) about a week and a half ago,” the officer said.
Jarvis Benson, the president of the Black Student Union thanked the organizers for coming to the march despite the bad weather.
“You didn’t have to weather the storm. But we’re doing it. We have to do it. We’re going to keep doing it as long as this lightning rod is here,” Benson said about the statue.
Jailien Grant, the president of the University of Mississippi chapter of the NAACP also spoke at the event and said there is no purpose in the university having a creed or a mission statement if administrators don’t hold people, including the pro-Confederate protesters who plan to march on Saturday, accountable to them.
“It makes me angry as a student that this statue is one of the first things (people) see when they enter this university,” she said.
John Ramming Chappell, the president of College Democrats, said he participated in the march because it’s important to celebrate people like Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers and Ida B. Wells who have strived for equality in the state.
“I think this (march) sends a clear message to the world about who we are as a campus, and it’s our job as students to redefine the narrative,” he said. “It’s our job as students to say, ‘No, this is not who we are.’ We are not the Confederate statue.”
The university has a long history of trouble with Confederate symbols on its campus. Five years ago this week, on Feb. 16, 2014, a group of Ole Miss students tarnished the statue of James Meredith, the university’s first black student, with a noose and an old Georgia state flag, which displayed the Confederate battle emblem.
In the five years since that February morning, the university lowered the state flag, which also bears the Confederate battle emblem, removed Colonel Reb as its official mascot and banned “From Dixie with Love” from being played at sporting events.