Here we go again.
Early Sunday morning, two men placed a hangman’s noose over the head of a statue of James Meredith on the University of Mississippi campus and draped the statue with an old Georgia state flag, which like Mississippi’s current flag, contains a replica of what is commonly known as the Confederate Battle Flag. According to law enforcement, the men were heard to yell racial slurs as they defaced the statue, which pays homage to Meredith’s enrollment as the university’s first black student in the fall of 1962.
As you might imagine, the act was widely reported and quickly denounced by virtually everyone connected with the university. The Ole Miss Alumni Association has put up $25,000 as a reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the act.
This incident comes five months after a group of students, including a large group of freshmen athletes, interrupted a campus performance of “The Laramie Project,” a play about the murder of a gay student in Wyoming. According to cast members, audience members yelled homophobic slurs, laughed and generally disrupted the performance. All students who were in attendance were required to attend a “restorative justice” lecture. University officials, citing privacy requirements, have not identified any of those who took part in the disruption and there is no information as to whether any of the students were punished beyond being required to attend the lecture.
Eleven months earlier, on the night of the presidential election, an estimated crowd of 400 students protested the reelection of President Barack Obama. Initial reports said a Obama/Biden campaign poster was burned and rocks were thrown and many students yelled racial slurs. No injuries or arrests were reported and the original characterization of the incident a riot, made by the campus newspaper, was sharply criticized.
That’s three pretty high-profile incidents in as many years and it begs the question: Does a climate of intolerance exist at Ole Miss?
We do not believe that be the case, although to be fair, we can see why that perception might exist among those who are far removed from Ole Miss and Mississippi.
Mississippi’s sorry history on race relations and Ole Miss’ role in it, certainly come into play each time another racial incident unfolds. For someone living in California or Ohio, the natural conclusion is that these recent events are evidence of “same old Mississippi, same old Ole Miss.”
We know, of course, the university’s commitment to racial reconciliation is sincere. We are also convinced these incidents do not reflect the attitudes of the vast majority of Ole Miss people.
Certainly, racists incidents are not confined to the Ole Miss campus. Last fall, the University of Alabama was embroiled in its own controversy when sororities refused to recruit black members. In truth, there probably isn’t a campus in our country that hasn’t suffered from some sort of racist incident.
So, no, Ole Miss should not be defined by these incidents.
But there is also a real danger in simply dismissing these incidents as unfortunate acts of a small group of idiots.
The fact is, the incidents did happen, and there will be those who will be watching closely to see how the university responds.
We were discouraged by the university’s timid response to the Laramie Project incident. The university should have acted far more forcefully in its investigation. Some real punishment would have communicated the university’s position on gay bashing far more effectively than an official statement of disapproval. As far as has been reported, no one involved in the Obama protest was ever punished, either.
We trust that in this latest incident, the university will send a clear, strong message and back it up with the kind of action that gives weight to its words.