Though his department chair claims that his termination stems from a breakdown in communication, scholars and non-scholars alike were shocked that a professor on leave — as a research fellow at Harvard University — could be fired for a failure to communicate, especially in the middle of a global pandemic. Many observers familiar with Felber joined colleagues within his own department, pointing to his activist work in support of funding education for those incarcerated, and his earlier critiques of the university as the underlying reasons for his dismissal.
While shock about Felber’s firing has taken social media by storm, the case falls within a larger historical pattern of how anti-racist scholars and activists have been treated at Mississippi’s educational institutions. Throughout every era of Mississippi history, state institutions have been used to squash free speech and dissent. Although Mississippi has undergone immense changes, this disturbing tradition of silencing those who advocate for non-White groups continues well into the 21st century. Like everything else in Mississippi, this assault on free speech has a deep history that is directly connected to race.
Mississippi has censored dissent and free thought since the beginning of its statehood. Slavery drove the state’s population growth, and by 1840 the number of enslaved African Americans topped that of White Mississippi residents. Members of this Black majority were prohibited from learning to read and write because of the threat literacy might pose to the institution of slavery. Abolitionist literature was banned or destroyed, despite the First Amendment’s free speech protections. Even after Emancipation, Black education was attacked by roving white supremacist organizations that targeted the Freedmen’s Bureau schools built to educate the newly emancipated Black residents during Reconstruction.
In the decades that followed, White Mississippians silenced free speech and dissent through violence, ranging from Jim Crow-era assaults to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till as retribution for speaking to a White woman. For years, Mississippi led the United States in the number of lynchings, leading civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer to dub it, the “land of the tree and home of the grave.” It also directly targeted the Black press, seeking to eliminate any voices that advocated for racial equality. In the 1890s, Black Mississippians published 46 newspapers, but by 1954 state-sponsored repression left them with only five. The editor of the most openly pro-civil rights newspaper of the 1950s was committed to a mental institution before his allies managed to smuggle him out of the state in a coffin.
Keeping African Americans from obtaining education remained key to white supremacy and the maintenance of Jim Crow. In 1958, a Black man named Clennon King was forced into a mental institution just for applying to the University of Mississippi. Two years later, a Black veteran named Clyde Kennard was framed for burglary and sentenced to seven years in prison as retribution for his efforts to desegregate the University of Southern Mississippi.
Black people were not the only targets for retribution. As the civil rights movement gained steam, White state officials sought to censor anyone who spoke out in favor of racial equality. One of the targets was a White history professor at Ole Miss named James Silver, who published a book titled “Mississippi: The Closed Society.” Shocked by the vitriolic response to the desegregation of the university by James Meredith in 1962, Silver hoped to expose the authoritarianism of the state’s leaders. “The Closed Society” argued that “Mississippi comes as near to approximating a police state as anything we have yet seen in America.”
Instrumental to this “police state” was an organization called the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. Formed to resist school desegregation, this Sovereignty Commission used public funds to investigate any and all Mississippi citizens suspected of having sympathies with civil rights groups. The commission’s network of paid informants followed vehicles, wiretapped phones and shared information with white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. They were a shadow network of investigators who answered only to the governor as they committed some of the worst violations of civil liberties in modern American history.
The Sovereignty Commission kept a file on Silver. It paid men to sit outside of his house and take notes on his visitors. It obtained reports of his speaking engagements in places as far away as New Jersey and North Carolina. One University of Mississippi alum living in Atlanta even took notes at one of Silver’s speaking engagements and reported Silver’s message back to Mississippi. Eventually, Silver was run out of the state.
And he wasn’t alone. Another Ole Miss law professor named Bill Murphy was pushed out in the early 1960s for refusing to teach that Brown v. Board was unconstitutional. The Sovereignty Commission also spied on student newspapers. It kept a file on University of Mississippi student journalist Billy Barton and blocked his bid to become editor of the campus paper. In 1970, police arrested nearly 90 Black Ole Miss students and expelled eight for participating in a campus protest.
Many suspect Felber’s case is the latest addition to Mississippi’s storied record of suppressing academic freedom and First Amendment rights. He is not threatening desegregation — the federal government already forced that — but as a scholar of the carceral state, he is an advocate for millions of prisoners across our nation, most of whom are Black and Brown.
At a moment in time when many in our society remain up in arms about “cancel culture” and so-called liberal bias on American campuses, few people recognize that those who suffer the most from limitations on free speech might actually be the very same professors accused by some of indoctrination.
Ironically, the governing body of Mississippi’s universities has enacted a free speech policy. Just last year, its commissioner of Education issued a statement arguing, “Freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment and must be nurtured and preserved on university campuses.” But does that apply to untenured professors?
Our universities face a crisis of leadership — not just from wealthy activist donors who sometimes object to campus activities — but also from administrators who fail to protect academic freedom. Amid a moment of growing signs of totalitarian ideas in our society, our democracy deserves serious introspection about the value of public universities. But this debate will not be happening at Ole Miss.