By Lily Jackson
Reckon Staff Writer
This story is part of a state-by-state series looking at racist histories and Confederate remnants on campuses across the South, and explores how current administrations are working toward a better future.
Clear, concise, direct answers.
What Leah Davis and her fellow student activists asked of the University of Mississippi administration was that simple. If the fate of Ole Miss’ Confederate monument lay in the hands of what state law called the governing body, students wanted to know who that was.
Instead, the 2020 Ole Miss grad said: “They gave us the run-around. … We can give you this, but we can’t do that.”
After years of pressing top officials to relocate a sculpture of an armed Confederate soldier, student and faculty activists succeeded in getting the matter before the Board of Trustees of the Institutions of Higher Learning, the state body with the last word on making changes at public universities. In June, the board finally voted to relocate the 30-foot-tall monument.
Although a new controversy brews over plans to spend $1.15 million on renovations to the monument’s new site, that chapter in the long battle over the monument’s fate comes as cities, states and universities examine their campuses for remnants of white supremacy, including ties to the Confederacy.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, student activists have taken to the streets and city halls across the country in their hometowns demanding racial equity. In the fall, many of those students will return to campuses, where a new phase of this year’s protest movements will unfold.
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“I think we are going to see a lot of conflict,” said James M. Thomas, a sociologist and professor at the University of Mississippi. “It will boil over. Students are fed up and they aren’t going to wait.”
And considering Ole Miss’ history, students have waited too long, he said. The school’s very nickname, Ole Miss, is a moniker enslaved people used when referring to their enslaver’s wife. Meanwhile, Ventress Hall, which houses the College of Liberal Arts, still has a stained glass window dedicated to the “University Greys,” a Confederate company composed of Ole Miss students.
These vestiges of slavery’s protectors remain despite the university’s long history of racial violence and reconciliation. For example, the admission of the university’s first Black student, James Meredith, in 1962 prompted the deployment of federal troops and sparked a riot in which two men were killed.
Meredith, who still lives in Jackson, Miss., said his application was as much about striking a blow to white supremacy in his home state as it was getting a college education. “The University of Mississippi wasn’t my main target. My main target was the state of Mississippi. The university turned out to be the most vulnerable spot to attack the enemy. I was going after the enemy’s most sacred and revered stronghold,” Meredith wrote in his memoir, “A Mission from God.”
Over the years, Ole Miss would frequently garner national headlines for racist incidents on campus and at fraternity and sorority events. In fall 2012, white students and community members came out in droves in response to celebrations over President Barack Obama’s second-term victory. Some of them burned Obama campaign signs and sang “Dixie,” weaving racial slurs into the song as local and national media outlets inaccurately reported that riots had broken out.
The episode inspired Thomas’ book, “Diversity Regimes.”
“I define a diversity regime as the constellation of organizational meanings and practices that function to institutionalize a commitment to diversity, but in doing so obscure, entrench and maintain existing racial inequalities,” Thomas told Inside Higher Ed at the time.
Despite the founding of diversity and inclusion departments, the hiring of diversity coordinators and listening series that bring thought leaders to campus, massive racial inequalities persist on the majority of American college campuses, he said. For example, almost 38 percent of Mississippi residents are Black but the University of Mississippi’s Black student enrollment is just under 13 percent and falling, according to the university’s office of institutional research.
“It begs for a connection,” he said, adding of the disconnect between increased diversity and inclusion efforts and measurable equity on campus: “What is happening? Why isn’t it crystalizing in our practices?”
Davis, who spent the majority of her time in college working toward change in leadership roles, said more must be done for current and future Black students.
The ideal first few steps, Davis said, involve directing more funds to support Black students and assisting them with scholarships when they arrive on campus. She added that funding the African American Studies Department, competing for sought-after Black professors, developing and enforcing a hate speech policy and “respecting students’ cares and wishes,” are crucial.
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“Students need to start seeing [university administration] as public servants,” Davis said. “We pay their salaries. They work for students.”
Tyler Yarbrough, a current senior studying history, saw Davis continue a fight previous students started. He said he plans to continue her fight. Yarbrough was one of many college students sent home at start of the COVID-19 outbreak. During that time, Black Lives Matter protests broke out across the country. He plans to continue that work on campus this fall.
“We have had enough,” he said. “I don’t want to see these statues anymore. I don’t want to walk into a building named after a slave owner.”
The push, he said, to change symbols of hatred will take different forms on campus. From the leadership of the student government to individuals saying, “F— the system,” and making noise, the voices will be louder than administration can tune out, he said. Yarbrough said he plans to “solidify the power of [students] before someone else tries to.”
“University leaders should know that strong communities are built by diverse voices,” he said. “In any instance, where that is not present, you are not helping build a strong community. You are threatening the community when you refuse to listen to those diverse voices.”
But, it’s not just up to the university, Thomas said. No single institution is going to be able to take on the complete restructuring of society. The University of Mississippi, being a public flagship university, is tethered to the state, and change must happen on a grand scale to see results.
“I am cautiously hopeful,” he said.
This story is the third in the series, “University Racism Unraveled.” Click here to read the first piece about students returning to campus in the fall. Click here to read about Auburn University and the University of Alabama. Stay tuned for more as we continue.
Lily Jackson is a reporter covering young Southerners and culture for Reckon. She can be reached on Twitter at @lilygjack or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.