A former student of the University of Mississippi pleaded guilty Thursday to a federal civil-rights crime, acknowledging that he and another man had tied a noose and a Confederate flag around the neck of a statue honoring the black man who integrated the state’s flagship university.
Austin Reed Edenfield of Kennesaw, Ga., waived indictment and pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge of using a threat of force to intimidate African American students and employees because of their race or color, according to a U.S. Department of Justice release. Edenfield admitted that he knew the rope and flag would be threatening and intimidating to black students.
Edenfield will be sentenced on July 21 and faces up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. The government has recommended probation.
Another former student, Graeme Phillip Harris of Alpharetta, Ga., pleaded guilty to the same charge last June, and was sentenced to six months in prison.
The symbolic lynching, which the men did during the night in February 2014 with an old version of the Georgia state flag which includes a prominent Confederate emblem, shocked many at Ole Miss and beyond.
The statue of James Meredith is prominent on campus, and it speaks to the university’s complicated history.
Ole Miss was at the epicenter of a turning point in the civil-rights movement in 1962 when Meredith tried to enroll at the Deep South institution after a Supreme Court ruling upheld his right to do so. The governor and state legislature battled that integration, and a riot broke out on campus around an old Confederate monument. Two people were killed.
President John F. Kennedy ordered federal law enforcement and troops to the campus to protect Meredith, a strong signal that Washington would enforce the integration ruling by the Supreme Court. Troops remained on campus until Meredith graduated in 1963.
The university has long taken pride in its Southern heritage and ties to the Confederacy. It shut down during the Civil War, when almost all of its students enlisted. The school’s teams go by the name Rebels, and until 2010, its mascot was the depiction of an old Southerner, Colonel Reb.
But in recent years the university has distanced itself from some of the symbols of the Confederacy, because it has become for many a symbol of racism rather than history. The mascot has been changed to a black bear, though still going by the name Rebel. This fall, the university took down the state flag with its Confederate emblem.
“The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that our universities and our workplaces are free from threats of racial violence,” said Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, in a written statement. “We will hold accountable those who attempt to turn places of learning into places of intimidation and fear.”
Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Mississippi, also issued a statement. “The responsibility taken in today’s hearing is another step in the right direction.
“Many members of our campus were deeply affected by this incident and the university does not tolerate hateful behavior. Today’s outcome affirms our position and sends a clear message about what is expected in our shared community. I want to thank the police officers, FBI and legal team for their hard work on this case — we are grateful for their strong leadership.”