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OXFORD, Miss. — When a drunken driver accidentally plowed into the Confederate statue on the University of Mississippi’s campus in September, the school had a choice: get rid of the statue and join the national movement erasing Confederate heritage, or pay to repair it.
The school administration chose the latter option, although the state attorney general’s office gave it permission to move the monument. The university shelled out more than $10,000 in private funds from the school’s foundation to fix the base that holds the figure of a nameless Confederate soldier, erected in 1906 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
And it replaced a plaque that explains why the statue was first built, including these words: “It must also remind us that the defeat of the Confederacy actually meant freedom for millions of people.”
The decision illustrated the contentious balancing act that Ole Miss has pursued since the university integrated in 1962, which led to riots, tear gas, thrown bricks and two murders. The school wants to appeal to a new diverse student base without disenfranchising its conservative students, or infuriating the wealthy political groups and alumni that are pressuring the university to uphold its white heritage.
“I think we do a lot in terms of education by having people read that story,” Dr. Jeff Vitter, the university’s chancellor, said of the monument. “If that statue were not there, they would not be able to do that. So we are preserving our history of the university, but we’re also using it as a teaching moment to really serve the role as a flagship university in leading the way forward.”
But many black students, who make up 13.1 percent of the undergraduate class, deeply resent the presence of a monument they believe glorifies a history of oppression, just as conservative white students have fought to keep alive the mementos of the Confederacy. Today the statue is just the latest open wound on a campus covered with the scars of a difficult racial history.
“All the iconography is here and it's present and it's something physical that you can see,” said Makala McNeil, a senior sociology major and member of the campus chapter of the NAACP. “You can't go really two feet without seeing something that is a relishment of the Old South.”
At Ole Miss, many students say another wave of racial turmoil is inevitable, especially since much of the combative dialogue between two diametrically opposed activist communities is about divisive Southern symbols and traditions.
The clash has been going on since at least 1962, when the university’s first black student, James Meredith, registered for classes at the Lyceum, an iconic antebellum building in the center of campus, built by slaves in 1848. The campus was full of federal troops and marshals who had earlier fought with rioting segregationists trying to prevent the integration of the student body.
But the past five years have been particularly arduous for Ole Miss’s public image.
In 2012, in the midst of the school’s celebration of 50 years of integration, black and white students clashed on election night when Barack Obama secured a second term.
Two students tied a noose and a flag that carried the Confederate symbol to the campus’s statue of Meredith in 2014. They were later arrested, charged and found guilty of federal hate crimes.
More recently, white students have petitioned for the return of Colonel Reb, the overtly Confederate school sports mascot — a white plantation owner formerly dressed in a Confederate uniform — that was removed from the sidelines of games almost 15 years ago. They have demanded that the Mississippi flag be flown despite the Confederate symbol it carries, and describe their heartache that the school band is no longer allowed to play the Confederate battle hymn “Dixie” before football games.
“A few minority voices from around the country saw the traditions at Ole Miss and thought they were offensive,” said Wess Helton, a junior international studies major and student president of the Colonel Reb Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing back the old mascot.
“[The administration] is trying to please the media and stuff from other parts of the country instead of trying to please their students and alumni and fans,” he added.
But many black and white students want these symbols and elements of Southern heritage gone. They say it doesn’t depict their Mississippi, and those traditions don’t compel them to attend the state’s flagship university.
In 2015, the student government voted to take down the Mississippi state flag, which bears the Confederate battle emblem, after the Charleston shooting. (The KKK and neo-Nazis came to campus to protest.)
Last year, dozens of black and white students occupied the Lyceum when a white undergraduate proclaimed his desire to lynch protesters, and the administration did not provide a satisfactory reaction.
According to members of the student body, faculty and the administration, the flurry of incidents has led to the growth of liberal and conservative activism.
The Black Student Struggle
Senior journalism major Ariel Cobbert, who is black, said her parents feared for her safety when she told them she planned to attend the state’s flagship school. They preferred she attend one of the state’s historically black universities, she said, but Ole Miss offered her a full scholarship.
“Because they weren’t necessarily comfortable with me coming here, when I turned 21 my dad got me to get my concealed-carry license,” Cobbert said.
Mississippi’s population is nearly 38 percent black, higher than any other state, but Ole Miss’ black student body is less than half that share. And the percentage of black students in undergraduate programs has only decreased 7.7 percent over the past five years after the rash of racial incidents.
Black students described a tense environment filled with overt harassment and subtle micro-aggressions. Some said they were afraid to walk alone at night and that they felt unwelcome at Ole Miss’s many publicized traditions, such as football game tailgates and fraternity parties.
“It’s one thing to say that you want to make the university more diverse,” said Jonathan Lovelady, a sophomore economics major and self-described student activist, “but you can’t do that if students are afraid to come here or they feel unsafe.”
Nevertheless, many of those same students said they wanted to attend Ole Miss, despite their families’ advice, to combat the problems they see at the university and develop an activist community.
Many helped persuade the student government to remove the state flag from campus in 2015, one of the biggest victories for the many black and liberal voices on campus in recent memory. After rebuilding the long defunct NAACP chapter on campus, student activists had steadily lobbied and channeled their energies toward taking down the flag.
But with that small success came a sudden outpouring of intimidation and harassment, via social media and in person.
Dr. James Thomas, a sociology professor and the NAACP faculty adviser, said many activist students were surprised when a substantial backlash developed to the flag’s removal, much of it led online by a new organization called Our State Flag Foundation.
And that fog of harassment hasn’t dissipated, he said, although administrative support has not risen to meet it.
“Our students who are being harassed received very little support from the administration throughout the process,” Dr. Thomas said. “Faculty and staff meanwhile are leaving their doors open and basically doing triage for these students.”
Some black students said their next mission is to persuade the school to adopt a hate-speech policy. They would start with teach-ins for interested students and move to protests if necessary.
“We have vandalism policies, but that doesn’t address when you’re pushed and called the N-word,” said Taia McAfee, a sophomore accounting major who leads Students Against Social Injustice.
“Obviously if we’re ignored,” she said, “we’ll see what happens.”
A Conservative Backlash
As a Southern university with a powerful sense of tradition, Ole Miss has never lacked a strong conservative presence. But with the success of organizations like the NAACP, an outspoken conservative opposition has developed over the past two years.
“After the state flag got taken down, you really saw a rise in conservative activism,” said Dylan Wood, the student government’s secretary and a conservative activist on campus. “And I mean now, I would think if you took a poll of the (student) Senate, I would think that most of them would identify their ideology as conservative.”
Many students said such changes occurred out of fear that the voices of the majority were being stifled, voices that they said wanted to hold on to a Southern heritage.
Coco McDonnell, an outspoken conservative student senator who wrote a bill to suspend the school’s committee that adds context to Confederate symbols, said activists attend popular student, alumni and visitor events to get the word out about their agenda. She said the Our State Flag Foundation drives much of that work.
“There have been a lot of efforts made by students and alumni and people within the Ole Miss community and outside the Ole Miss community to bring the state flag back to campus,” she said. “You’ll see in the grove every game-day weekend, stickers are passed out that say, ‘Ole Miss, fly your state flag.’”
One of the people behind the foundation is Howie Morgan, a Republican political consultant and Ole Miss graduate who founded it with a few like-minded friends.
Morgan, who runs a campaign management firm called the Election Impact Group, based in Gulfport, Mississippi, has worked on numerous right-wing and Tea Party campaigns since 2005, including presidential campaigns for Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. He is using his political and fundraising skills to fight for his favorite Ole Miss traditions.
“There’s a general feeling that the establishment elites are leftists and running our institutions, whereas the people they want to govern are all conservatives,” said Morgan, who also helped found the Colonel Reb Foundation in 2003. “That allows us to have a lot of like-minded individuals among organizations not only on the campus of Ole Miss but also throughout Mississippi.”
Our State Flag Foundation is listed as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, which means it does not have to reveal its donor list. But Morgan readily claims he courts the same big-money donors as the university. He said many wealthy alumni were unhappy about the university shedding its controversial past.
Much of the money the foundation has raised appears to be spent on social media advertising and the production of the thousands of stickers, banners and yard signs the foundation hands out on game days. Morgan said the group’s annual budget is about $25,000.
As it happens, Morgan’s political firm sells decals, signs and bumper stickers, as he advertises in his personal email signature. It is unclear whether Morgan’s private company makes money off the orders from his nonprofit, though he said students tell him what products they want to buy and from whom they want to buy it.
“Whoever they want to,” said Morgan. “It doesn’t matter to me. Whoever they want to.”
Morgan’s foundations are not the only conservative organizations on campus. National groups such as Turning Point USA, which hands out signs and stickers that say “Socialism Sucks,” are now active student groups on campus.
“[Conservatives] were scared to share their views because they didn’t want to be labeled a bigot or a racist or whatever,” said Wood. “But I think that’s changed with, not just the election of Donald Trump, but the whole nation I think is headed toward the conservative movement.”
Where the University is Headed
While conservative and liberal students openly debated each other on the campus’s sidewalks over the past year, the University of Mississippi has pursued introspection.
School officials knew there were many dormant, foundational and — at times — hidden Confederate legacies that haunt the corners of this campus. In the summer of 2016, the university created a committee to conduct a thorough inspection of every name, symbol and icon on the school’s more than 3,500 acres.
This group of faculty, alumni and a single student returned to the chancellor with a 49-page final report a year later. It included 18 recommendations that endorsed contextualization plaques, a yearlong education series of events, the construction of a museum dedicated to the university’s history and more.
They also identified buildings named for problematic figures, such as James Vardaman, governor of Mississippi in the early years of the 20th century, who campaigned on a policy of endorsing lynching as a means to promote white supremacy. There are also numerous buildings erected by slave labor.
The school will rename the Vardaman building, but, for the most part, the school chose to erect plaques that provide historic context rather than removing names or expunging memories.
“That’s why we did this exercise,” Vitter said, “to make sure that we scoured the campus to recognize those places where we needed to add that context so that we understand the issues of the past, the problems that we will never repeat, and make sure that we create that welcoming climate for all people in Mississippi and beyond.”
The administration also adopted a diversity plan that leads with a difficult question: How does the school convince potential minority students and the country that it has not only moved past its stormy racial history but is now welcoming and safe for a diverse student population?
One of the early goals is to increase minority enrollment and graduation rates, and the University of Mississippi paints a rosy picture. Since 2011, the administration remarks in its diversity plan, the school’s minority student enrollment has grown from 19 percent to 25 percent and the number of degrees awarded to black students has risen 30 percent.
But, using Ole Miss’s own enrollment metrics, those numbers are misleading, as their black undergraduate population has dropped more than 7 percent while the white student population has grown 23 percent.
Whitman Smith, the director of admissions, said he hopes the state’s flagship university will eventually reflect the population of the state. He explained the school has raised its requirements for out-of-state students, who are mostly white, and added a number of new endeavors to attract in-state black students — such as the Mississippi Outreach to Scholastic Talent Conference, which invites rising black high school seniors to visit and explore opportunities on campus.
“I have been counting on minority enrollment to grow based on the initiatives we’re taking,” said Smith. “But one of the things I’m finding is that doesn’t flip overnight.”
Smith admitted that the recent racial incidents have affected those goals. Student activists say the administration’s lukewarm response to those incidents is compelling the right and the left to pursue bold action on campus — leading to, for example, the NAACP’s occupation of the Lyceum or McDonnell’s attempt to suspend the contextualization committee.
While both conservative and liberal students said they hoped they could enjoy a warmer dialogue in the future, they shared their certainty that there would always be a need for activism on campus, because the administration has not worked to change the tone on campus.
“A lot of the issues that have been brought up or have been community dialogue have been led by students,” McNeil said. “It would just be nice to see administrators being proactive in these situations, as well.”
The author is a 2013 graduate of the University of Mississippi.
CORRECTION (Nov. 16, 2017, 4:40 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated Dylan Wood’s title. He is the secretary of the student government, not the attorney general.