University leaders have begun the process of getting legal approval to move the monument away from its prominent spot to a Confederate cemetery elsewhere on campus.
“This is an important decision for our university,” Larry Sparks, the interim chancellor, wrote in an email to campus. “The monument, its meaning, and its location have been a point of discussion and debate for many years.”
Some see the statue of a soldier as an integral part of the university’s rich history and Southern culture. Others contend it is nothing more than a racist symbol that has no place at the state’s flagship school.
When he saw Sparks’s message, Jarvis Benson, president of the Black Student Union at Ole Miss, thought of student activism against the monument starting years before he ever came to campus, years before he ever wished to come.
In recent months, a carefully coordinated campaign challenged the presence of the statue on campus. In the same week this month, groups representing much of the university — the Faculty Senate, Staff Council, Graduate Student Council and Associated Student Body — passed resolutions calling on the university to move the statue.
Students described shaking, cheering and crying after the undergraduate resolution passed, unanimously, after months of secretive efforts.
Then, there was collective anxiety as they waited for the administration to respond, said Katie Dames, a sophomore and senator in the student government.
“We didn’t really know how the university was going to respond, if they were going to respond or say anything,” said Elam Miller, president of the Associated Student Body. But then, “to open your email and see” the message from Sparks — “I was really happy when I saw it, and I think so were a lot of other students,” Miller said.
“It has been almost surreal,” he said. “It sends a message to the rest of the country that our campus is for all students.”
There was something particularly inspiring about the campus uniting at a time when the country is so polarized, Miller said. They crafted a compromise that suggested moving the statue to a more appropriate site, rather than demanding it be moved off campus — or tearing it down, as protesters did to a similar monument at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at the beginning of this academic year.
The Mississippi monument has long been a flash point at the Deep South school, which shut down during the Civil War when most students left to fight for the Confederacy. When the first black student tried to enroll at Ole Miss in 1962, after the Supreme Court upheld his right to do so, state leaders came out in opposition and a riot broke out around the Confederate statue. Two people were killed.
Federal law enforcement and troops were sent to campus to protect James Meredith, the black student, and to enforce integration.
Over the years, Ole Miss has moved to distance itself from some of its Confederate symbolism, adding a statue of Meredith prominently on campus and removing the state flags that include the Confederate emblem.
But some traditions linger. In February, pro-Confederate demonstrators gathered at the statue, rallying to show their support for the monument.
When Benson, a senior from Mississippi, decided to enroll at the school, his family and friends questioned why he would want to go to a university that wasn’t built for people like him. It was hard to contest those statements, he said, when the first thing you see on campus is a statue commemorating the Confederacy.
“It’s a perpetuation of those stigmas, and a symbol of who really holds power on campus and who historically held the power,” he said.
Benson, one of the co-authors of the student government resolution, said the message from the interim chancellor doesn’t solve the problem, but “it’s a step toward greater respect.”
It would be great if the statue could just be gone overnight, said Dames, the student government senator. “A lot of people don’t like the bureaucracy and the red tape,” Dames said. But she said she has faith that if consensus is nurtured on campus, the monument’s move can be permanent.
The interim chancellor said earlier this month that, by law, certain requirements must be met, and approvals sought from state agencies, because the statue has landmark status. On Thursday, Sparks told the campus that the university submitted word of its intent to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, a necessary step in the process to get approval for the relocation.
That process will take time, he said.
Benson wonders if, by the time he graduates this spring, the statue will have been relocated to the cemetery. “I can hope,” he said. “I can dream.”