November 2019

A Week in the Life of Ole Miss: February 2019 and the Fight to Take Down the Confederate Statue

"At the University of Mississippi, the incompetence and unwillingness of the administration to address Confederate symbols further entrenches white supremacy. It is, as they say, a feature and not a bug."

by Ellie Campbell

On February 23, 2019, eight University of Mississippi basketball players, led by sophomore Devontae Shuler, took a knee during the national anthem. They knelt to protest a pro-Confederate statue march undertaken in Oxford the same day by eighty-odd white supremacists, including members of the Hiwaymen and Confederate 901. National media coverage of the event mostly focused on the actions of the basketball players, with scant mention of protests, marches, and other anti-racist organizing on the University of Mississippi’s campus.[1] The university’s athletics department was surprisingly supportive, but emphasized in interviews that the players’ decision to take a knee was limited to this one game, in protest of this one event. Contrary to that narrative, the events around that weekend are part of a much larger story of white supremacy and anti-racist activism at University of Mississippi.

Confederate Statue at the University of Mississippi. December 2019. Photo courtesy of Ellie Campbell.

Oxford, Mississippi, where the university is located, boasts not one but two Confederate statues, as well as other Confederate memorials. Both were erected in the first decade of the twentieth century, a concrete expression of the violence of Jim Crow segregation and Lost Cause revisionist history. The first statue, dedicated in 1906 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, stands in the center of campus, in front of the university’s main administrative building. Not content with one statue, a separate group of white citizens raised funds for a second to stand in the courthouse square, which was dedicated by the United Confederate Veterans in 1907. The march on February 29 started in front of one statue and ended at the other, a distance of about a mile. Both statues are dedicated generally to the Confederate dead, stand 29 feet tall, and are made of over 40,000 pounds of marble.

Famously, almost the entire student body and many of the faculty members enlisted in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Almost all were casualties in the war. A twelve-foot tall Tiffany stained glass window in Ventress Hall, donated by students and alumni in 1889, also celebrates the “University Greys,” a branch of the Confederate Army mostly composed of students from the university. The campus was used as a hospital during the war for soldiers wounded at Shiloh, and the dead were buried in a Confederate cemetery that lies on campus.

Second Confederate Statue at University of Mississippi. December 2019. Photo courtesy of Ellie Campbell.

These statues, however, represent only the most visible signs of oppression; in reality, the university itself is steeped in an overtly racist past.[2] It was founded with the explicit purpose of educating the sons of white planters to eschew northern abolition ideals, instead upholding a society based on plantation slavery.[3] Enslaved people contributed to constructing the campus, and bricks in several buildings still bear their fingerprints. Many buildings are named after segregationists and white supremacists. The most notable of these is Vardaman Hall, named after James K. Vardaman, former governor and U.S. Senator from Mississippi, who openly called for lynching in the same decade that saw the dedication of both statues. The campus nickname, “Ole Miss,” is a reference to the mistress of a plantation, and the athletics teams are the “Ole Miss Rebels.” The website for the university is http://www.olemiss.edu, and every official university email address ends in olemiss.edu. This is a particular concern for students and faculty in the modern era, many of whom do not want their professional identities to reflect white supremacist ideology.  

Today 12% of the student population on campus is African-American, and those students, as well as many African-American staff and faculty, walk past these memorials to the Confederacy and to white supremacy every day. Fortunately, they are not and have never been silent in the face of all this, though they have faced harsh and, at times, violent reprisals. In 1970, African-American students held a rally on campus and produced a list of 27 demands, calling for an end to racial discrimination on campus and the recruitment of more African-American students, employees, and professors. After a peaceful protest, they were arrested and taken to local jails and to Parchman, Mississippi’s state penitentiary/cotton plantation. Several were expelled. In 1982, the first African-American cheerleader (then a position elected by students), John Hawkins, refused to carry the Confederate flag during a game. In response, the Klan held a rally in Oxford and marched in the town’s square.

Some change has come, albeit slowly.[4] In 1997, the university got rid of the Confederate flag at sporting events by banning the wooden flag sticks. “Colonel Reb,” the former university mascot, was retired in 2003. In 2006, the university built a monument to James Meredith, who desegregated the school in 1962. A three-day riot ensued after his enrollment and the National Guard occupied Oxford for several months afterward. That statue is not without controversy; in the spring of 2014, three fraternity brothers placed a noose around the neck of the Meredith statue, and eventually pled guilty on federal charges of “using threat of force to intimidate students because of their race.”

Over the past fifteen or so years, a pattern has emerged, of which the symbolic lynching of the Meredith statue is but one example. In 2008, white students rioted over the election of President Obama, and the next day, twice as many students and faculty held a candlelit vigil in counter-protest, followed by days of campus conversations, newspaper articles, and “soul-searching.” Similar events accompanied President Obama’s reelection in 2012. In 2013, several football players shouted homophobic language during a production of The Laramie Project, and the campus responded with counter-protests, op-eds, and town hall sessions.

Campus Protest to Remove Confederate Memorials. February 21, 2019. Photo Courtesy of Mary Blessey.

Just this past year, the university community responded in similar ways to a number of incidents. In September, a prominent alumnus and donor posted photos of African-American students on his Facebook page and suggested that their attire was the reason property value was declining in Oxford. His name was later removed from the Journalism School. Right-wing media targeted a sociology professor after the release of a multi-year study on campus racial microaggressions—the chancellor exacerbated the problem by publicly undermining the credibility of the study. Over the past summer, ProPublica revealed that several fraternity brothers had posed with rifles for photos in front of a historic marker for Emmett Till. The marker was pocked with bullet holes. The university was informed of the photos in the spring in a bias complaint, but did little until the article on the incident was published in July.

The university’s confederate iconography has recently been at the center of similar protests. In 2015, in the wake of Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage in South Carolina, students at the University of Mississippi, particularly the undergraduate chapter of the NAACP, started organizing to take down Confederate imagery on campus. That fall, they successfully convinced the university to stop flying the state flag, which includes the Confederate battle flag in its design. Led by the undergraduate senate, every governing body at the university voted in favor of taking down the flag, and shortly thereafter the administration did so. Many other universities in the state followed suit. Soon, students turned their attention to the Confederate statues.

Though many student groups have participated in this push, Students Against Social Injustice (SASI) has been the most visible. They organized and led marches against the statue in April 2017 and November of 2018, and demonstrated by the statue during several home football game Saturdays, in the middle of campus tailgating. In the fall of 2018, SASI started organizing a conference for their parent organization, United Students Against Sweatshops, to take place at the University of Mississippi on February 21-22, 2019. Events were to include a march against the campus Confederate statue. In December of 2018, several members of the Hiwaymen and Confederate 901 took to Facebook to announce that they had planned a march in support of Oxford’s two Confederate statues that same weekend.

Campus Protest to Remove Statues. February 22, 2019. Photo courtesy of John Rash.

The university did little to warn or alert the community that white supremacists were planning to march in Oxford. A brief announcement was sent out on February 13, nearly two months after the groups’ Facebook announcements, merely declaring the white supremacist gathering not a university sponsored event, and reminding the community of the campus’s commitment to free speech. Few on campus had heard about the march, and word began to spread on social media. Student groups—mostly African-American and LGBTQ groups—began organizing counter-protests and calling on the university to condemn the event. Several open letters to the university circulated and were signed by hundreds across campus.

Campus concern deepened considerably after February 15, when the university announced a change to its open carry policy. Administrators assured the community that they were only bringing policy into compliance with state law by allowing those with enhanced concealed carry permits to bring weapons on campus. In the words of university counsel Erica McKinley, “It is a rather unfortunate, and frankly damning, coincidence that when we realized and got aligned on that policy, we issued it when we did.”

Regardless of their intent, the new policy had the immediate effect of terrifying many and lending the impression that the university was more interested in bending over backwards to accommodate white supremacists than it was in protecting its own students, staff, and faculty. To make matters worse, the students of SASI found themselves having to relocate their conference to Memphis, after the university threw up administrative roadblocks at the last minute. Several community groups and churches, who had offered food and lodging for the attendees, were reportedly asked by the university administration to withdraw their involvement.

White Supremacist Organizations Marching in Support of Confederate Monuments. February 23, 2019. Photo Courtesy of Mary Blessey.

The administration released six different announcements over ten days, many of which contained vague or conflicting information. Facts about their actions were not widely available. The administration held several “town hall” style meetings that communicated little, aside from warnings to stay off campus.

During this time, I worked as a librarian at the University of Mississippi’s law school , and part of my job was to supervise staff and student workers. Our building was on the edge of campus and nowhere near the university statue, but the administration’s announcements left no one sure what would or could happen on Saturday. Many of my student workers had questions that I could not answer—will we be safe on campus? Will the members of the Hiwaymen or Confederate 901 come to the law school building? Should we participate in the counter-protest or stay safe at home?

Many had followed the news about the tearing down of Silent Sam, the Confederate statue at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the subsequent student protests, and violent reprisals by their campus police. Few  trusted our campus police to keep us safe, and many wanted to send a message that this hate was not welcome in our community. A few students tried to start a Facebook event for a counter-protest on Saturday, but several progressive leaders from the community pointed out that we didn’t have the kind of support structures to ensure that the protest would remain safe.

Eventually the interim chancellor released a statement Thursday afternoon, two days before the Hiwaymen and Confederate 901 were scheduled to arrive in Oxford. It condemned “racism, bigotry, and hatred,” and claimed to “remain steadfast” in the university’s goal of “eliminating prejudice and discrimination.” Meanwhile, several organizations, mostly representing African-American students, planned a Black History Month march for Thursday, February 21, while SASI and others planned a second “Students Over Statues” march for Friday, February 22. Both took place at lunchtime, and hundreds marched in the rain on both days in defense of their community. 

Police changed the meeting place for the Friday march at the last minute, and word spread that protesters were not allowed to have profanity on signs or posters, or their posters would be confiscated and they might be detained—a demand which, if true, violated students’ constitutional free speech rights. The white supremacist marchers arrived at the square around noon on Saturday and marched to the statue on campus and back in about an hour. They were escorted by police and followed by about the same number of counter-protesters.[5] Later that afternoon, the eight basketball players took a knee during the anthem, and a different kind of controversy emerged on campus. Media reactions and online commentary exploded during and after the game, and many on campus were concerned about how the athletics department would treat the basketball players.

Plaque on Confederate Statue. December, 2019. Photo courtesy of Ellie Campbell.

Meanwhile, a group of undergrads had been working on a plan to deal with the statue. In the aftermath of the weekend, they presented a resolution to the undergraduate senate. Because the Mississippi legislature had banned the removal of memorials in 2015, they could not suggest that the university tear it down. Instead they proposed relocating it to the Confederate graveyard on the edge of campus, far from classroom buildings and dorms. The Tuesday after the Saturday march, the undergrad senate voted unanimously in favor of that resolution. The three other governing bodies followed suit—the faculty senate also passed it unanimously, while the graduate council and staff council passed it by a wide margin.

Since then, the university  submitted relocation plans for approval by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in August, which the board of MDAH unanimously approved in December. The next step requires the administration to submit the plans to the Institutes of Higher Learning, the university’s governing board, and for the board to vote. Every step in the process has only happened after another march, protest, or newspaper column, often planned by SASI alongside other student organizations. If the future on campus looks anything like the past, the plans will not move forward without further pressure from students, staff, and faculty, continuing our real problem—a cycle of administrative inaction that can only be addressed by community protest.

As of the writing of this column, the statue remains in place.

In the week following the protests, Garrett Felber, Jessie Wilkerson, James Thomas, and I wrote a guest column for The Daily Mississippian, the university’s student newspaper. We spoke as representatives of a newly-formed labor union chapter, the United Campus Workers of Mississippi. It took as much courage as I’ve ever had to put my name on that column, and I’m still proud that I did, and grateful to my colleagues for giving me the chance to stand with them.

In the column, we connected the symbols of white supremacy that litter the campus to the practice of racial capitalism that continues to enrich a privileged class of wealthy white administrators, coaches, and donors by exploiting the labor of students, staff, faculty, and athletes. The labor of standing up to the Hiwaymen and Confederate 901 was undertaken with incredible courage by the least compensated and most vulnerable populations on campus, allowing those in positions of power to claim that white supremacists don’t represent “us.” Meanwhile the administration does little to address those symbols, without concern for the safety or well-being of their students, staff, and faculty.

The University of Mississippi deserves better. Its students, staff, and faculty deserve a safe campus that welcomes all people and prioritizes education. They deserve a voice in their governance and accountability and transparency from their administrators, without having to resort to massive direct action. Because at the University of Mississippi, the incompetence and unwillingness of the administration to address Confederate symbols further entrenches white supremacy. It is, as they say, a feature and not a bug.

Ellie Campbell is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Law and Reference Librarian at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She previously worked as a Public Services Law Librarian at the University of Mississippi from 2015-2019. She holds an M.A. in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi, an M.A. in American Studies from King’s College London, and a J.D. and an M.L.I.S. from the University of Alabama. She is from Anniston, Alabama.

Further Reading

David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Thomas John Carey, “The Design of the Southern Future: The Struggle to Build White Democracy at the University of Mississippi, 1890-1948.” PhD diss., University of Mississippi, 2016. eGrove 1420.

Catherine Clinton, ed., Confederate Statutes and Memorialization (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2019).

Karen Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville, Florida: The University of Florida Press, 2019).

Charles W. Eagles, The Price of Defiance: James Meredith and the Integration of Ole Miss (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

David G. Sansing, A Troubled History: The Governance of Higher Education in Mississippi (Oxford, Mississippi: Nautilus Press, 2015).

Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York, New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013).


[1]To be fair, local and campus media did a much better job covering the events.

[2] Additionally, UM exists on the occupied land of the Chickasaw people, who were forced off by the Treaty of Pontotoc Creek. This expression of settler colonialism is another aspect of white supremacy at the university, unfortunately beyond the scope of this piece.

[3] Sansing, A Troubled History, p. 22

[4] The campus environment for LGBTQ communities has also improved in the past 5-10 years, largely due to the work of the Sarah Isom Center for Women & Gender Studies and its director, Dr. Jamie Harker, as well as many of the same student activists who are involved in anti-racist work.

[5] Despite claims otherwise, the protest was not entirely non-violent. The police tased and arrested one anti-racist protester.

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