Just over six months ago, Ed Meek made a racist, sexist Facebook post that implied a relationship between the images of two young black women, both Ole Miss students, and a threat to “the values we hold dear that have made Oxford and Ole Miss known nationally.” Hours later, then-Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter condemned the “unjustified racial overtone” of the post. Three days later, amidst public outcry that included forums for students in the School of Journalism and New Media, Meek asked that his name be removed from the school. The decision was approved by the state college board, and the name was removed from the building in December.
The proceedings from the time of the post to the time of tangible action advanced with a speed that far outpaced what then seemed to be the usual plod of social progress at the University of Mississippi.
Consider the fact that our university needed three other Mississippi universities to remove the state flag from their campuses before our administration followed suit in 2015. Consider that the 2014 Action Plan, which urged no greater change in our university’s veneration of Civil War and Jim Crow-era white supremacists than to “offer more history, putting the past into context,” took four years to produce a milquetoast set of contextualization plaques.
Like the removal of Meek’s name from Farley Hall, these are real, physical changes in the way the university presents its values, and while the changes can feel underwhelming, their tangibility is something to be proud of. However, it is undeniable that, compared to the speed with which the university handled the Meek controversy, those changes occurred at a snail’s pace.
In the months since the letters of Meek’s name were pried off the Grove-facing wall of Farley, the university community has participated in a similarly rapid chain of events. This chain began with February’s protests and has already resulted in the university administration notifying the Mississippi Department of Archives and History of its intent to relocate the Confederate monument at the heart of our campus to the “more suitable location” of the campus’s Confederate cemetery.
Before Meek, the common argument against the relocation of the monument or the changing of names of buildings that honor white supremacists like James K. Vardaman, L.Q.C. Lamar, James Longstreet and James Zachariah George was that these things are part of history and that history can only be harmful when it is hidden from view.
We, as a community, learned from Meek’s Facebook post that there is a difference between acknowledging history and honoring it. We learned that symbolism can be harmful even when it is not maliciously deployed. We learned from a contemporary expression of racism that monuments to racist ideology validate and sustain that ideology, and this newly widespread sentiment is driving a change in rhetoric that corresponds to a shift toward progressive values.