The University of Mississippi boasts impressive credentials—it has the only school of medicine and dentistry in the state, and its schools of business, pharmacy and law are highly regarded. But the state’s flagship university stands against an equally busy historical backdrop. Since its founding in Oxford, Miss., in 1848, the school has been steeped in Confederate history.
Its entire student body joined the ranks of the Confederate army in 1864 and never returned. The school’s nickname, Ole Miss, is a direct reference to the name that plantation slaves would give the mistress of a Southern home. Its prior mascot was a bearded plantation owner called Colonel Rebel. The world’s largest Confederate flag used to be unfurled to stretch the length of the field at football games, and the marching band used to blare Dixie from the stands at football games as recently as 2009.
So when Associated Student Body Senator Allen Coon put forth a resolution with the backing of the University of Mississippi’s NAACP and Black Student Union chapters, I admit that I wasn’t optimistic.
But on Tuesday night, with a vote of 33 to 15 to 1, the University of Mississippi Associated Student Body shocked me when they resolved to pass Resolution 15-13, which requested the removal of the state flag of Mississippi on the university’s campus. Mere hours afterward, the University of Mississippi Staff Council passed its own resolution in support of the university removing the state flag. If the Faculty Senate acts similarly, hopefully the administration of the University of Mississippi—who has the final say—will concur, and the flag will come down.
The University of Mississippi’s black students complicate the message of what it means to be a student here by virtue of attending a school in a place that has so long romanticized the antebellum South. Despite the environment, black students have challenged the racism here, overt and covert, by demonstration, by bravery, by asserting our right to have our identities respected. We are audacious. But because of this long tradition of racial division, the university tends to squirm under the spotlight of the national media, which, not without just cause, turns toward us at the first whisper of racial unrest.
At the first scent of racial dissent, roaches with white power tattooed on their forelegs scurried onto campus to feed and intimidate, waving their Confederate flags and yelling to the student body that black lives don’t matter. Others spoke out with similar intensity on Facebook. Ole Miss is betraying the state of Mississippi, they said. The flagship university should not undermine the state, or challenge its authority on the issue of the flying of the state flag. In a Facebook post, Mississippi Republican Senator Chris McDaniel blamed the passing of the resolution on the “passion and poison of a liberal administration.”
I imagine that it’s easy for those who confuse political correctness with being a decent person to treat progress as an impediment. Luckily, the Associated Student Body Senate of the University of Mississippi doesn’t think so. The student senators have acted in such a way that not only acknowledges that black students have voices, at a volume that calls out oppression on an institutional level.
Hopefully, the legislature of the state of Mississippi will one day follow ASB’s example instead of standing mulishly, embarrassingly behind the status quo. As Associated Student Body Vice President John Brahan neatly put it: “Sometimes you have to bite the hand that feeds you in order to promote social change.”