Overcoming a Racist Legacy

At AAUP conference, faculty and staff members from the U of Mississippi describe how the campus is moving beyond its past.

June 17, 2016
James Meredith memorial at the U of Mississippi

WASHINGTON -- How does a university with a reputation for historically being inhospitable to black students overcome that part of its heritage? That was the focus of a panel of faculty and staff members from the University of Mississippi here Thursday at the annual meeting of the American Association of University Professors. Speakers from across student services and academic programs at Ole Miss described a kind of “recursive progress,” in which the university takes steps forward as well as backward on the road to inclusion -- but ultimately moves ahead. And, perhaps, in which it’s not always afforded the credit it’s due.

For Stephen Monroe, assistant dean and instructional assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts, Ole Miss’s “new history” dates back to 1962 and the matriculation of James Meredith. The military veteran attempted to enroll after a legal battle over his right to attend his state’s flagship institution; the fact that he was black sparked a violent on-campus riot that resulted in two deaths. Meredith finally enrolled after federal troops assumed control, but he required bodyguards and was alternately ignored, swarmed and harassed by classmates until he earned his degree.

Subsequent decades saw continued advances in integration at Ole Miss, but real cultural progress was slow, Monroe said.

“In the early 1990s, if you had attended an Ole Miss football game, it would have been different,” he said. “The entire stadium would have been a sea of Confederate flags, the song ‘Dixie’ would have been played over and over again by our official university band, and [one would have been greeted by] the ubiquitous, rowdy presence of our official school mascot, Colonel Reb,” a grandfatherly throwback to the Confederacy.

The second, more rapid phase of Ole Miss’s new history began in 2006, with the dedication of a memorial statue to Meredith on campus, speakers said. In 2009, then Chancellor Dan Jones asked the band to stop playing the Civil War-era anthem “From Dixie With Love” at football games. In 2010, the university ditched Colonel Reb for a new mascot, a black bear. And in fall 2015, Ole Miss took down the state flag featuring the Confederate emblem.

While many students and alumni applauded the changes, each evoked backlash, as well. An ex-student admitted to tying a noose and another state flag with a Confederate emblem around the neck of the Meredith statute in a symbolic lynching, for example. Members of the Ku Klux Klan, in full regalia, also came to campus to protest the 2009 “Dixie” decision. And members of hate groups returned in 2015 to counter Black Lives Matter activists campaigning for the removal of the state flag.

“Each of the changes we’ve made has come with a miniature civil war of its own,” Monroe said. “In each case, though, the right decision was made and preserved.”

Several audience members Thursday expressed shock at video footage of the 2009 protest, in which Klan members and counterprotesters wearing “Turn Your Back on Hate” shirts and reading the Ole Miss creed stood yards from each other, under the watchful eye of law enforcement officers. Speakers explained that Ole Miss, as a public institution, can't bar nonviolent protests, however offensive the views being expressed.

E. J. Presley, an academic adviser at Ole Miss who attended the university as an undergraduate at the time of 2009 protests, eerily described wondering who was under the hoods. Coming from a nearly all-black high school in a small town that was literally divided by race down a railroad line, Presley said the moment seemed to confirm some of the fears he and other black students had about attending Ole Miss.

“I heard, ‘All those students, they’re going to hang you while you’re up there,’” Presley recalled. “I went from being in the majority to in the minority -- and the extreme minority at that.”

Presley did encounter racism -- he was called racial slur by men in a truck shortly after arriving on campus, for example. Yet he said he was determined to disprove assumptions that Mississippi was "the most racist university in the world." And there was evidence of that: a white roommate, for example, turned out to be a friend. He found mentors who inspired him to mentor others, including young men of color, as well.

Shawnboda Mead, director of Ole Miss’s Center for Inclusion and Cross-Cultural Engagement, also said she wrote off Ole Miss as an undergraduate over concerns about the racial climate. She doesn’t regret not going there, she said, but she does regret not even considering it.

Why? Like other speakers, Mead said that Ole Miss has its issues -- it was the last institution in the Southeastern Conference to found a center like hers, for example. But Mead pointed out that perceptions of the campus as a racist hotbed are overblown. People do visit campus to protest perceived challenges to Southern ideology, but they’re rarely if ever connected to the university; Ole Miss is more representative of the old South in the collective imagination than in reality, she said. (Some audience members suggested that the racist Ole Miss stereotype lives on because Northerners enjoy having a kind of punching bag on which to deflect their own unresolved racial tensions.)

In the aftermath of the racist fraternity incident at the University of Oklahoma, for example, speakers said, reporters visited Ole Miss to interview students, dragging the university into an outside conflict. Yet things like the Mississippi student government’s consideration of a resolution to remove the state flag -- what Mead called “the most civil exercise of debate that I’ve ever seen” -- don't garner equal, positive attention, Mead said.

The trend isn’t good for the university’s image or the progress it’s trying to make with black students; a workshop for prospective students of color and parents about an undergraduate mentoring program yielded poor numbers after some negative press attention about the noose incident, for example. But the program and others like it, in addition to a critical race studies group and a bias incident response team, are making a difference over all, she said.

“I can’t really quantify it, but I do think it will have an impact on the perception of the university in the state of Mississippi,” Mead said.

As the university works to actively recruit more students of color and first-generation students through such programs, it’s also working to retain them. There, too, it’s encountered roadblocks. Kyle Ellis, director of the Center for Student Success and First-Year Experience, said black students made up 16.6 percent of the population in 2011; last year it was 13.4 percent. Six-year graduation rates also hover above 60 percent for all students, and over 40 percent for black students. To boost those numbers and support students, Ellis aggressively monitors student retention based on whether they have course schedules and other factors, and reaches out to them and -- if they’ve given previous permission -- their parents when an intervention is in order.

The university also has a separate, smaller learning community program for struggling students.

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter has reaffirmed the university’s commitment to diversity, on social media and elsewhere, in light of recent legislation in the state that would limit access to bathrooms for transgender people.

Vitter also announced in a recent letter to campus constituencies continued efforts to try to contextualize some of the remaining Confederate symbols on campus. The note followed previous back-and-forth between Jones, the former chancellor, and various campus groups about a report calling for more context surrounding those Confederate symbols and even the nickname Ole Miss.

In April, a plaque meant to provide context to a memorial featuring a Confederate solider on campus was criticized for leaving out references to slavery, prompting Vitter to engage with members of the history department and other concerned students and professors.

“We are involved in a profoundly important dialogue to fully understand and articulate our historical truths, while claiming our hard-earned present identity as a national flagship university,” Vitter wrote.

Mississippi’s approach won the respect of audience member Catherine Sevcenko, director of litigation for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who said her organization has rated the campus highly for its commitment to the First Amendment.

“It’s inspiring to me,” she said. “We say in our office that the best response to racist speech is counterspeech, and this is what your community has done every time there’s some idiot in his regalia or whatever -- you’ve got hundreds of faculty and community members pushing back.”


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