In Memoriam to a Memorial
How should a university commemorate the civil rights movement, and its painful but pivotal role in it?
Until this month, most people at the University of Mississippi thought the university had the answer nailed down. In the summer of 2002, five professional artists invited students, administrators, and local residents – some who had witnessed violence at Ole Miss in the 1960s – to share their thoughts as the artists waded through submissions for a memorial on campus.
The installment that eventually won was praised by the judges and others as a beautiful metaphor of the struggles and promises of integrating higher education. It won unanimous approval from the judges, but was delayed in construction while donations were gathered. Then, this month, the artist whose design won got a call from Robert Khayat, the chancellor of Ole Miss, who told him that the plan did not fit the university's needs, and that the university would use a new design from an architect who often does work on campus. Now, those involved with the effort that led to the original selection, which one of the judges called “the most comprehensive, inclusive effort I’ve ever been involved in,” are left upset and confused.
The original submission guidelines asked for something that would "challenge viewers to reflect upon their role in the struggle for equal opportunity to education and to consider the future of civil rights as a whole," and "pay homage to those whose earlier efforts made such progress possible."
Certainly, Ole Miss had people worthy of homage, including James Meredith, who, in 1962, became the university’s first black student. He was escorted onto campus amid violence that left two people dead.
A proposal by Terry Adkins, an associate professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania, was selected. The design consisted of two twin archways supporting glass doors, with bronze bells suspended above. The archways and doors were to bear phrases like “freedom forevermore,” and “teach in fear no more,” and “learn in fear no more.”
The doorways were slated to sit on the walkway between the library and the administrative building in the center of campus. The new plan will be off to the side of the walkway, and will be more a tribute to Meredith specifically -- including a statue of Meredith as a 22-year-old that black student leaders requested, and Meredith approved – than to the movement.
“It was more than one person,” Adkins said. “This new piece is inelegant and makeshift.” The new design will have walkways off the main one that lead to it, and will be a circular base with a 30-inch brick wall rimming it and stone seating atop the wall. In the center, the statue of Meredith will sit below an arch bearing words like “honor, justice, opportunity.”
Adkins and Annette Carlozzi, one of the judges and an art curator at the University of Texas at Austin, said Khayat did not raise objections while the selection process was ongoing. But he started to ask for changes later on. Adkins said he grudgingly agreed to certain alterations, such as lowering the height of the archways three feet, installing benches with inspirational words, and keeping the doors closed, rather than partway open.
“They said it was a safety hazard to have the doors open, so I said, ‘Well, then keep them closed,’” Adkins said. But it was not enough. Khayat said he respects Adkins’ work very much, but that “it would be better on the Mall in Washington, not on a Greek revival campus.” He added that the new memorial will be a “destination point,” not something people just walk by, and that the word “fear” was too negative, and not focused on the future. Khayat said that he and the management staff had more concerns, including that the glass doors would be graffiti targets.
Adkins, for his part, felt that any door on campus could just as easily be vandalized, and he chafed at the notion that the memorial needed more positive words. “I think it’s just smoke and mirrors and a veiled political agenda to not face up to the sordid past of Ole Miss,” said Adkins, who added that he integrated the all white Ascension Academy, in Alexandra, Va., in 1964. “The chancellor decided it should be some kind of happy memorial…. I thought after the Vietnam [Veterans] Memorial people would be thinking differently about this.”
Adkins called the disposal of the original process “totalitarian.” Khayat conceded that the original contest “worked, but the result was unacceptable.” John T. Edge, now 42 and director of the university’s Southern Foodways Alliance, helped begin the effort for a memorial in 1995 when he was an undergraduate inspired by a Southern studies class. Edge said he is disappointed because the unilateral decision to use a familiar architect is “antithetical to the democratic” selection process that occurred. “Just as my life has been informed by the myopia that comes with white privilege,” said Edge who noted that Khayat pushed to remove the Confederate flag from campus., “I think [Khayat’s] is too, and sometimes we can’t see so clearly.”
Some of the inflamed passions on campus have played out in letters to the school paper. The editorial board of The Daily Mississippian voiced its opinion in an editorial titled “We have not overcome,” which slammed the university’s delays and ultimate disposal of Adkins’ plan. Edge has helped raise $160,000 for construction, and Khayat said all donors will be shown the new plan, and asked whether they want to redirect their donation to another part of the university.
One letter to the paper from a black student criticized a professor who supported the memorial -- “LET IT GO. The movement is over” -- and roughly suggested that Edge direct his fund raising toward scholarships for black students, rather than a memorial. “I think the letter points out the need for the memorial to be central, if anything,” Edge said.
Khayat said he thinks the new installment will be more positive. “I want to express that the doors of higher education have been opened. It took respect, honesty, justice,” he said.
Edge and Adkins were glad that some students are up in arms, which shows times have changed at Ole Miss. But those who participated in the original selection process have seen their doors slammed shut. “[Khayat] is bringing back more of the past than any memorial could,” Adkins said.