The University of Mississippi, founded in 1848 in Oxford, is a school steeped in Southern traditions — some of them racist. When the South went to war, much of Ole Miss’s student body joined the Confederate cause in a fabled company known as the University Greys. When the school’s first black student was admitted in 1962, riots broke out. The campus is awash in tributes to the rebels — a Confederate Drive (until 2014), a Confederate cemetery, a Confederate memorial and, until 2010, a mascot called “Colonel Reb.” It is, after all, the University of Mississippi.
But Tuesday night in a dramatic vote, Ole Miss student legislators moved to distance themselves from their state’s past and present. The school’s student senate approved a resolution asking the university to stop flying the Mississippi state flag, which includes a Confederate design, on campus grounds. And, though the resolution is non-binding, it puts a question to university officials much of the country has struggled with after a white supremacist allegedly killed nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., last summer: Is it still okay to embrace the stars and bars?
“I think it shows that we as a student body recognize that these symbols of white supremacy have no place on our campus,” sophomore and student senator Allen Coon, a 20-year-old major in public policy and African American studies who introduced the resolution, told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. “They affect people that are marginalized. They make students feel excluded on their own campus and they promote ideals of hate and racial oppression.”
The resolution, which passed 33-15-1 by the Daily Mississipian’s reckoning, condemned Mississippi’s flag in no uncertain terms. The flag is “the only state flag in the nation that incorporates the Confederate battle flag in its design,” it said; the flag “divides our campus and state” and “undermines efforts to promote diversity and create a safe, tolerant academic environment for all students”; and the flag “violates the UM Creed, which calls for ‘respect for the dignity of each person.'” Its removal “would advance the university’s efforts to create an inclusive space for all students.”
“Do not celebrate this decision simply because it is ‘making history,’” student body executive officers said in a statement after the vote, “but celebrate because this is a step in a direction that will fundamentally change the way we interact with one another, interacting under a unified banner that shows this world the true colors and best values Mississippi had to offer.”
Not everyone, however, supported the change.
“To live in a free society, the possibility to be offended will occasionally occur,” on online petition defending the flag circulated by student senator Andrew Soper ahead of the vote read. “Removing symbols, flags, and monuments will do nothing to change the way people feel in their hearts. … Ole Miss Students and my fellow Mississippians, rise up and push back on political correctness and support the state flag.”
In an anti-flag rally last week, students who wished the flag to be removed were confronted by their opponents, including members of the Ku Klux Klan.
“Black lives don’t matter,” KKK member Shaun Winkler said. “We are the blood of conquerers.”
“We can fly our flags where we want and how we want,” one man holding a Confederate flag and a sign reading “secede” said at the rally. When an onlooker said he was racist, the man said: “Absolutely.”
The resolution now goes to university officials, who were not immediately available for comment, for approval. But whether or not it is approved, student activists see the battle over the flag as just another step in reclaiming their school from the Old South.
“It is not for me to decide whether or not Confederate soldiers deserve glory,” Sierra Mannie of the Daily Mississippian wrote in Time last year, “but I do know that it is not the responsibility of an educational institution and its students to maintain the last bastion of the Confederacy, or to stand as a symbol of the ‘Old South,’ a period of assumed refinement and class that would maybe seem more romantic if it hadn’t all been built on the backs of slaves. Ole Miss has spent too long marinating in such an idyll.”
“This is the first step of many,” student senator Coon said. “Our campus rife with Confederate iconography. We intend to address these symbols in the coming months.”
Even the nickname of the university may be fair game.
“I avoid using the term ‘Ole Miss’ at all times,” Dominique Scott, an undergraduate in sociology and African American studies, told Democracy Now. “The term “Ole Miss” is definitely steeped in a history of racial oppression. Historically, the term “Ole Miss” is a term that slaves used to refer to the mistresses and/or matriarchs of their plantations.”
Some, however, think the university has come quite a ways already. In 1999, professor emeritus David G. Sansing, in his sesquicentennial history of the school published by the university’s press, called such controversies over symbols “recycled.”
“No collegiate institution in America has been more open and honest about its racial problems or as earnest in its efforts to resolve them as the university of Mississippi,” Sansing wrote. “Despite the discourse and distractions over symbols, and the burden of its history, Ole Miss has made remarkable progress.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to the June church shooting in Columbia, S.C., not Charleston. In addition, the name of Confederate Drive was changed last year.