The symbols’ keeper: Ole Miss’ identity struggle

Posted on Nov 17 2016 - 8:15am by Clara Turnage
Confederate Statue in the Circle. (Photo by: Ariel Cobbert)

Confederate Statue in the Circle. (Photo by: Ariel Cobbert)


On any tour day in Oxford, prospective students are herded from landmark to landmark on campus as a guide tells them the history of Ole Miss.

They walk through the Circle, past the Confederate Memorial with its newly erected contextual plaque. They pass the James Meredith statue in front of the library and go across campus to other historic buildings, like Vardaman Hall, which was built more than 80 years ago.

They see the columns of the Lyceum, where a guide might point to the bullet marks that mar the university’s most recognizable facade.

They move on to the American flag in the Circle, which once hung just above the state flag, but now flies alone.

These names, sites and symbols may seem benign, but they are at the heart of some of the university’s deepest divisions.

In this place, vestiges of the university’s mottled past bleed into everyday life, reopening old wounds and growing divisions as new movements tear away from tradition.

Guardian of the South


Donald Cole (Photo by Ariel Cobbert)

“This university has been the keeper of Southern symbols, the keeper for all of the South,” said Donald Cole, who is assistant provost and assistant to the chancellor concerning minority affairs. “As other Southern universities have abandoned some of these symbols, it looks as if many people of the South have rallied around us as the keeper of those symbols– even when their states have refused to keep them themselves. That has haunted us quite a bit.”

Before Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter came to campus in January 2016, a committee had been created to address some of the more controversial symbols and names on campus.

Foremost on the list was the Confederate Statue. The committee decided on language for the contextualization in fall 2015 and ordered the plaque, which would not be placed until March 17.

It was met with backlash.

In the days after the placement of the new plaque, several groups released statements arguing against the text. Some, like the campus NAACP and the UM History Department, said the plaque did not recognize the complex history of the monument. Many others, however, were more upset that there was no community input or awareness of the process.

The original plaque text said:

“As Confederate veterans were passing from the scene in increasing numbers, memorial associations built monuments in their memory all across the South. This statue was dedicated by citizens of Oxford and Lafayette County in 1906. On the evening of September 30, 1962, the statue was a rallying point where a rebellious mob gathered to prevent the admission of the University’s first African American student. It was also at this statue that a local minister implored the mob to disperse and allow James Meredith to exercise his rights as an American citizen. On the morning after that long night, Meredith was admitted to the University and graduated in August 1963.”

On March 29, Vitter opened an online submission form to allow community input into the language of the plaque. Over the next two weeks, until it closed on April 8, students, faculty, Ole Miss fans and alumni sent in more than 250 recommendations and letters to the administration.

The Daily Mississippian submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the comments and emails about the statue and the plaque.

Of the emails, 144 said they were happy with the plaque as it stood, nearly 100 suggested changes to the current plaque and around 85 said the monument needed no contextualizing.
For privacy reasons, the university redacted names and contact information from the submissions.

“I believe this statue was given in love and so should be remembered that way, as a memorial from those who loved the ones who fought and died,” a submission from April 4 read. “We do not have to just remember the ugliness, we can choose to see the humans, all of them…. not marginalize them by simply dividing them into white southerners versus slaves or good versus evil.”

Some emails were heated and said they believed the university had failed its constituents.

“Forgive me for sounding a little irate, but the babies at Ole Miss need to put on their big boy pants and go to school. Leave grown-up matters to grown-up,” said a letter submitted on April 1. “That monument and the flag were not put there for the ridicule of self-loving pansies. … One day, when they are being sacrificed by the very group they are standing up for now, maybe they would appreciate the sight of that flag coming over the hill.”

Several submitters requested the NAACP be denied access to the conversation surrounding the plaque.

“So sad and disturbing to read your comments regarding this plaque I can’t believe you are so concerned with what the racist NAACP says,” said a letter from April 8. “You’ve obviously turned your back on your own heritage.”

“Frankly, we think the fix is in, and the administration will fold like a cheap suit and give those blacks exactly what they want,” a letter from April 7 said. “I would suggest that if we have people on campus who are not aware of these issues, they are too dumb to be on campus in the first place. … This is just another case of those blacks whining, looking for attention, when they really have no legitimate grievance. Please don’t cave in to the race baiters.”

One professor described how a class full of students pointed out that out-of-state students have committed many actions to which the university has been infamously linked.

“While there is a semblance of truth to these claims, a leader of the election night protest was from South Carolina and the noose perpetrators were apparently from Georgia, my question is why do these ‘outside agitators’ with these views keep coming to our campus?” the submission from April 7 read. “We are sending the message that they are welcome here (a statue memorializing confederate veterans at the center of campus obviously plays a roll). This plaque language and the national attention we get from the new language will tell these unreconstructed potential students that they are not welcome here, we are not a playground of the old south, but a research university in the highest Carnegie category”

The history department faculty, who also wrote and submitted a 22-page work detailing the long history of the Confederate Monument, received 17 emails in support of its proposed language as well as a petition that had more than 500 signatures supporting the new text.

“I, along with many of my colleagues and neighbors in the community, was disappointed in the language developed for the plaque,” a submission from April 4 read. “Overall, it seems to miss much of the historical context that was occurring during the period and the long legacy of terrorism and institutionalized hatred against African-Americans by the organizations and actors who originally placed the statue on campus. Furthermore, the language ignores the racial legacy of the campus that goes well beyond James Meredith and integration, including the use of slave labor to construct the centerpiece of campus.”

Many of those who supported the history department spoke against the text first placed by the committee.

“It is wrong to have a plaque on a monument to Confederate soldiers that doesn’t mention what they fought for; if your mandate is to bring more ‘context’ to campus monuments which reflect the university’s long and ugly racial past, then creating a plaque that does nothing to address that past is certainly the wrong way to do it,” an April 7 letter said. “Put another way, creating a plaque that is grossly at odds with historical reality is not a good way to move the University forward.”

And a few were looking for compromise.

“I am the president of the 11th Miss. Infantry Memorial Association,” an April 4 submission said. “We appreciate your difficult position in trying to write something which reflects the differing views of the causes of the Civil War; we appreciate that you are trying to be inclusive, trying to move past controversy, and we support your efforts here.

“What about a plaque that tells briefly the story of the Greys, and relates that many Mississippians today still honor their memory, but continues to say that many others view this monument as an expression of support for the odious institution of slavery; that our beloved University is a place where differing views and opinions can and should be debated and discussed.”

The responses are a snapshot of how Ole Miss’ supporters feel about these contentious issues: divided.

Vitter expanded the history and context committee and, after receiving and vetting more than 100 nominations to the committee, appointed 14 representatives of the campus– including historians, sociologists, students and alumni– to work on future contextualization projects.

“It’s not organized politically around constituency groups. It’s organized around expertise,” Vitter said. “This is not a political process. It’s one based on facts and scholarship.”

For some students, however, who are typically on campus just four years, the crawl away from neo-Confederate symbols is too slow.

“It’s important to recognize that we’ve got to be removed from those things,” said Tysianna Marino, president of the university’s branch of the NAACP. “As long as we’re associated with that, that’s who we are. We are those racist people who sing those racist songs and idealize those racist symbols. Instead of those people who appreciate and try to move forward and away from that history.”

Marino said she doesn’t believe that anyone who works in the Lyceum feels personally attached to things like the Confederate flag or the Confederate Memorial Statue.

“The thing that will hold us back as the Ole Miss community is that no one is going to say anything,” Marino said. “They’re going to continue to pretend (the symbols) are not there, pretend they’re not racist, pretend they don’t have racial connotations and pretend those racial connotations are not damaging to people of color. It’s not that people glorify them anymore, it’s that they want to keep the peace. They’re so reliant on keeping the peace that they forget to consider how damaging it is for a significant portion of their population.”

This dichotomy of opinion between conservationists and change-agents has created something Cole said is troubling.

“It has shaped itself as an ‘us-versus-them,’” Cole said. “Whenever that happens, the end result means that somebody has to lose. It has to be shaped as a win-win.

Sons and daughters

The Confederate Memorial and its contextual plaque, the final version of which was placed in October, again drew attention when the Mississippi Sons of Confederate Veterans revived its lawsuit against the university.

The suit, first filed in 2014, was revised over the summer to ask the courts to “Grant an injunction against the University of Mississippi, enjoining and preventing the University of Mississippi from disturbing or otherwise altering, desecrating, attacking, removing or placing any kind (of) plaque or placard which may in any way change, alter or disturb the significance and meaning of the Confederate Monument.”

The Our State Flag Foundation, created in 2015 after the state flag was taken down from the Circle, invited State Sen. Chris McDaniel to speak at its last meeting of the fall.

McDaniel spoke passionately to the 70 or so attendees in the old chemistry building. Some clapped and nodded their heads as he told them universities – such as Ole Miss– are kowtowing to political correctness and agenda-laden officials.

“Our state is being controlled by political correctness,” McDaniel said in an interview after the meeting. “It is so consumed with coddling a handful of students that they ignore the greater context of what the symbols have meant, what they presently mean and what they might mean in the future. A college campus is a place where people should be confronted with varying viewpoints. They should be taken outside of their comfort zone from time to time. They should be faced with challenging opinions. It just strikes me as strange that we would try to insulate adults from something that could be conceivably hurtful or harmful.”

Though the conversation with the flaggers and foundation members began with the state flag, it quickly became a discussion of other symbols on campus too. Some in the crowd asked about the plaque on the Confederate Memorial or the contextualization of buildings with complex histories.

On this topic, McDaniel had much to say.

“Why does it have to be contextualized? I think both sides make the improper assumption here that that symbol or that monument can only mean one thing,” McDaniel said. “I hope that I’m not judged 100 years from now with those types of exacting staples. I hope that people understand this is complex, that people are complex. We make mistakes. We do great things; we do bad things. It really does a disservice to students to sum up a person’s life in a single sentence. It’s not just a disservice to the individual; it’s a disservice to a person’s intellect.”

McDaniel said if one site must be contextualized, so too must many others. McDaniel said the money it takes to contextualize history could be better spent on the present.

Ultimately, however, McDaniel said it’s just an “impractical position to take and logistically almost impossible.”

Plaques and platitudes

For Vitter, the disassociation of the university from Confederate symbols is largely a move to protect the Ole Miss brand.

“In order to use those terms– ‘Rebels’ and ‘Ole Miss,’ they’re terms that we control; they’re our terms– we can’t use symbols that hearken back to the Confederacy and have negative terminology,” Vitter said. “We always want Ole Miss to be a positive brand. So, we have to be careful not to associate with anything negative whatsoever, and by so doing, we truly do own the brand Ole Miss.”

This has also been a learning time for the chancellor, who grew up in New Orleans.

“We value inclusion and being a welcoming environment. My growing up, in which the Confederate flag was a symbol of Southern pride, is unfortunately not the sole view today. We realize now that it’s a source of insult and it’s very hurtful to a large number of people,” Vitter said. “It has been usurped and is clearly harmful to a lot of people because there are hate groups that identify with the flag.”

Jennifer Stollman, academic director at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, said she does not believe the university will always have ties to symbols.

“Symbols only retain meaning as long as people understand that they have meaning,” Stollman said. “As we move toward a more informed campus population, one in which people understand implicit bias … I think the symbols will lose their meaning.”

Stollman said civil rights and equity movements come in cycles, and that the university is currently in a movement toward equity.

“That being said, we have lots of movements to go. We have lots of things to do,” Stollman said. “To argue that change hasn’t happened is to in some ways reveal our knowledge gap about the hard work that’s being done today and has been done for decades. It also disrespects the activists that continue to make change.”

For Vitter, any new changes will come from the recommendations of the history and context committee, which will recommend sites for contextualization.

“I don’t know how many that is, exactly,” Vitter said. “There may be a site that it’s actually recommended to change the name because that case in particular is rather extreme.”

These symbols – and the adherence so many people have to them– make it hard for the university to evolve, Donald Cole said.

“Years ago, we institutionally dug ourselves into a hole that it’s going to be hard to climb out of,” Cole said. “We’re not going to stay in that hole; we are going to do our climbing out of it.”