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Ole Miss yearbooks appear to mock lynching victims

The Lyceum building at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. (iStock)
6 min

Mack Charles Parker was pulled from his jail cell in Poplarville, Miss., by a gang of White men on April 25, 1959. The 23-year-old Black army veteran had been awaiting trial for the alleged kidnapping and rape of a White woman. The men beat him bloody, forced him into a car and drove to the Louisiana border, where they shot him to death. Then they dumped his body, weighted down with chains, in a nearby river.

A year later, at the other end of the state, Parker’s name appeared in the University of Mississippi yearbook, listed as a senior majoring in education. Next to his name was a strange photo of what appears to be a stone or papier-mâché head.

Parker was never a student there; Black students were not permitted. His name and the image appear to have been a prank or joke mocking a victim of racist terror.

“It’s this weird archive of racism, that people thought other people would see this and laugh about it,” said Davis Houck, a Florida State University professor and author of several books about the civil rights movement. He tweeted an image of the yearbook page when he discovered the “joke” in June, after being tipped off by a friend of a friend who used to thumb through the yearbooks as a child.

In the same yearbook, there was another photo of what appears to be a head carved from dark stone. Next to it was the name Ed White — a common name, for sure, but it also matches the name of the victim in an 1896 lynching just over the Mississippi border in Alabama.

Houck noted that “Ed White” and the “Wilburn Hooker” entry on another page (with a photo of what appears to be Jesus) could also refer to Hillery Edwin White and Edwin Wilburn Hooker Sr., prominent members of the White Citizen’s Council who led a years-long fight against Ole Miss professors, textbooks and library books they claimed were communist or insufficiently supportive of segregation. The university released a report that academic year responding to the allegations.

Houck said he was also told of an entry in the 1956 yearbook mocking Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy whose 1955 murder helped ignite the civil rights movement. In that yearbook, there was a photo of what appears to be a person wearing a grotesque mask, with a straw hat on top of his head. The name next to the photo has been blurred in the internet Archive version of the yearbook uploaded by Ole Miss.

Houck said he initially thought the mask was made to resemble Till’s mutilated body, but he found the same photo in the previous year’s yearbook, which was published before Till’s murder. The name next that image was Thomas Dalton — also a common name, but it matches that of an 1878 lynching victim in Louisiana, once again just over the Mississippi border.

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“I just can’t imagine this could be a coincidence,” Houck said in a text message after being informed that White and Dalton were also the names of lynching victims.

Along with Parker and White, there were many more “joke” photos in the 1960 yearbook, most of them more innocuous. Mixed in with student portraits were photos of sculptures and paintings named “Eleanor Roosevelt,” “Gertrude Stein,” “Marie Antoinette” and “Lady Jane Chatterley.” Two more carried the names of a football player and the coach of a rival football team. The papier-mâché face used for Parker was used again on a page for Lynda Lee Mead, an Ole Miss student who won the Miss America pageant that year.

Ole Miss did not respond to a request for comment on the yearbook photos and names, but the school may already be aware of some of these “jokes.” An online disclaimer that appears with the yearbooks reads:

Some of the images and language that appear in the University of Mississippi yearbooks depict prejudices that are not condoned by the University of Mississippi. The yearbooks are being presented as historical documents to aid in the understanding of both American history and the history of the University of Mississippi. The University Creed speaks to our current deeply held values, and the availability of past yearbooks should not be taken as an endorsement of previous attitudes or behavior.

Ole Miss’s first Black student, James Meredith, was nowhere to be found in the 1963 yearbook, where he should have appeared. When Meredith, a 29-year-old Air Force veteran, had attempted to register for classes, he had to be protected by federal troops, and a subsequent White riot left two people dead. A two-page spread in the yearbook showed a U.S. Marshal and what appear to be abandoned backpacks, with an oblique reference to “the aftermath of the terror,” but the man the marshal was defending — Meredith — went unmentioned.

“You act like you’re surprised,” said Meredith, now 89, when reached by phone at his home in Jackson, Miss. “This Black-White thing is the deepest thing in the world.”

This fall will mark the 60th anniversary of his admission, and Ole Miss is planning to honor Meredith with a series of events, including a gala in his honor and an appearance at a football game. The invitation to the planned events “surprised me a thousand times more than what you asked me about,” he said.

According to Charles W. Eagles, author of “The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss,” the nickname “Ole Miss” itself derived from the title of the 1897 yearbook, and may refer to both antebellum Mississippi and what enslaved people would have called the wife of their enslaver, short for “Old Mistress.”

Mississippi is “generally pretty good about commemorating its awful past,” Houck said, but he was unaware of any public markers dedicated to Parker. At the time, his lynching “did get some national oxygen, but it’s more of a footnote in civil rights history,” Houck said.

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It didn’t seem like that immediately following Parker’s murder. Dozens of FBI agents descended on Poplarville in a then-unprecedented investigation, eventually obtaining confessions and the names of eight alleged participants in the murder, according to Howard Smead, author of a 1986 book about the case. The FBI turned over its report to local authorities, who convened a grand jury but refused to give the jurors the report. The judge warned the jurors about preserving “our way of life,” according to Jerry Mitchell, a civil rights cold-case investigator.

No one was ever charged. Smead called it “the last classic lynching in America.”