Atlantic Cities

A New Attack on a Symbol of Racial Integration in Mississippi

In 1962, James Meredith won his fight to attend the University of Mississippi, becoming the first black student to enroll at one of the state’s most cherished institutions.

It was a legal struggle at first, one that began in 1961 and went all the way to the Supreme Court. Even after the court ruled in Merdith's favor, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy had to personally intervene to convince the state's governor to comply with the court's decision.

Then things got physical. Meredith was literally blocked from campus by Mississippi state troopers. When he was finally allowed to enter, white students and others who came from around the state to protest his admission started violent riots, despite the presence of hundreds of U.S. marshals, National Guardsmen, and military police. The mob set upon the car of the general in charge of federal troops, setting it on fire. He and those riding with him escaped the burning vehicle and managed to crawl to safety while being shot at. Two people were killed, including a French journalist shot in the back.

It's worth remembering all this because last weekend, the James Meredith statue on the University of Mississippi's campus in Oxford, erected in 2006, was vandalized. Two as-yet-unidentified men, screaming racial epithets, tied a noose around the statue’s neck and draped it with the former state flag of Georgia, which incorporates the Confederate battle flag known as the Stars and Bars (Georgia’s flag was redesigned in 2003).

University officials immediately denounced the vandalism and called in the FBI to help with the investigation. Chancellor Dan Jones said in a statement:

These individuals chose our university's most visible symbol of unity and educational accessibility to express their disagreement with our values. Their ideas have no place here, and our response will be an even greater commitment to promoting the values that are engraved on the statue — Courage, Knowledge, Opportunity, and Perseverance.

The alumni association is offering a $25,000 reward for tips leading to an arrest.

The incident is an indication of just how persistent history and its symbols can be, and how at the University of Mississippi, they have a particular racial resonance. The university's widely used nickname, Ole Miss, is a slave term for the mistress of a plantation. It was only in 2010, that the school, whose sports teams are known as the Rebels, changed its mascot from a white male plantation owner figure known as Colonel Reb to a bear that was intended to be less controversial, but that nonetheless made a lot of students and alumni unhappy. In 2009, the school's chancellor told the band to stop playing "To Dixie with Love" after students repeatedly chanted the words "The South will rise again" along with the tune. And after Obama's reelection in 2012, a racially tinged disturbance broke out on the campus.

Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP, called the latest action "a racial hate crime," and told the Associated Press, "You cannot have a university where, when you turn down the main drag, it's called Confederate Drive. ... At some point, we're going to have to reverse course on the image of Ole Miss so we can reverse course on the image of the state of Mississippi."

In the wake of the vandalism of the Meredith statue, students held a vigil at the statue to express their condemnation for those who defaced it. Some supporters of the school, including prominent black football alumnus Shay Hodge, said the racial ugliness did not represent the university they know. Others say it should serve as a teachable moment.

Jake McGraw, the editor of the website Rethink Mississippi and a white alumnus of the University of Mississippi, wrote about the shame suffered by the community over incidents like last weekend’s, and the natural desire to deflect the inevitable denunciations that have followed in the national media:

But before we seek to extinguish the flame that burns us, we should recognize it also has the power to illuminate. The light from the incident should show us that while Meredith desegregated the university, the work of integration remains unfinished.

The campus that has elected multiple recent black student body presidents and a black homecoming queen is still socially and politically centered around the all-white Greek houses, dutifully managed by their black “help.” In the state with the country’s largest black population, nearly all of the university’s most prominent faculty and administrative positions are held by whites….

Just as good health is not merely the absence of illness, integration cannot be defined merely as the absence of racial incidents. Integration means equality, measured in positive, practical ways: Shared spaces, organizations, symbols, and experiences for all students. A student body and staff representative of state and national diversity. Opportunities for career advancement among faculty, administrators, and coaches of color.

As for the man whose still-powerful image was the target of the vandals, James Meredith, now 80-years-old, took the long view, as he did more than 50 years ago when he began the journey that made him one of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. He told the Los Angeles Times, "That just clearly shows that we’re not training our children like the Bible says. They don’t know right and wrong, good and bad and how to apply it to life."

It's impossible to know, at this point, what repugnant thoughts were going through the minds of the people who put that noose around the statue's neck. Were they drunk, or high? Did they think it was funny? Did they want to scare people? Whatever their murky thinking, the one thing they made clear was probably the opposite of their intent. They revealed the enduring power and significance of one man's actions. Even if we learn their names, they will be quickly forgotten. But we won't forget James Meredith's.

Inset image courtesy of Flickr user lucianvenutian.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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