As Rebs win, Ole Miss balances Dixie and diversity
OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Ole Miss is enjoying its best football season in a half-century, and that’s bringing new attention to Mississippi’s flagship university.
The Rebels haven’t played this well since 1962, which happens to be the same year troops stood up to mob violence to force the University of Mississippi, under federal court order, to admit James Meredith as its first black student.
School leaders have struggled ever since to improve both the image and the reality of a place once seen as a bastion of segregation.
The latest initiative is a diversity plan Chancellor Dan Jones is rolling out this year, addressing symbols and substance to make the campus more inclusive.
The United States is not yet “a truly post-racial society,” Jones explained. “Our unique history regarding race provides not only a larger responsibility for providing leadership on race issues, but also a large opportunity — one we should and will embrace.”
For example, the school will hold onto its Ole Miss nickname, but only for athletics. Although consultants said fans and alumni generally view it only as a chummy name for their favorite team, “Ole Miss” was what slaves called a plantation owner’s wife, and critics say it is too rooted in the past to be used today.
Confederate Drive has been renamed Chapel Drive. There’s a new Center for Inclusion and Cross-Cultural Engagement, where African-American students can get mentors. The university plans to hire a vice chancellor for diversity. And, there’s a scholarly effort to document not-so-flattering aspects of the school’s history.
The plan builds on previous changes: Jones’ predecessor, Robert Khayat, banned hand-held flagpoles from the stadium in 1997 after coaches complained that Confederate flag-waving was hurting recruiting, and about a decade ago, the university retired Col. Rebel, a mascot whose image recalled a crusty old plantation owner.
But there is no official talk now of doing away with the Rebels team name. Instead, Jones plans to add more black symbols on campus. Part of an athletics training facility was recently named after the school’s first two black football players. A life-size statue of Meredith was dedicated outside the administration building in 2006.
Trying to put distance between Dixie and a school that has represented Southern elites since its founding in 1848 bothers Frank Hurdle, a developer in Oxford who edited The Daily Mississippian student newspaper in 1987-88.
“You just don’t sweep every bit of history under the rug,” Hurdle said. “I don’t see any reason to act as if the past never happened. It’s not healthy.”
Some sports fans also are rolling their eyes — isn’t it enough, they wonder, that the Rebels are finally ranked No. 3 in the nation in the Associated Press poll?
Athletics Director Ross Bjork would like to change the conversation, saying journalists don’t write about segregationist Gov. George Wallace blocking the door to black students at the University of Alabama in the 1960s every time the Crimson Tide has a good year, nor do they mention that Mississippi State, now ranked No. 1, integrated later than Ole Miss.
But Bjork says the topic of race relations comes up when Ole Miss recruits for its football team, which is about 70 percent black. African-Americans comprise 14 percent of the overall student body.
“We do have those questions, and we choose to face them head-on,” Bjork told The Associated Press. “What we say is, ‘Come see for yourself.’”
Oxford is in the gently rolling hills of north Mississippi — cotton and kudzu country immortalized by Nobel laureate William Faulkner, who lived and wrote just a short stroll from the campus.
Civil War-era traditions have a tenacious hold here: As the Rebels trounced Tennessee 34-3 on Homecoming Saturday, cheers echoed down from the shiny modern stadium into a nearby cemetery where Confederate troops are buried. The University Greys, a unit of students and faculty who fought for the Confederacy, are commemorated in a stained-glass window in a campus building. A marble statue of a Confederate soldier salutes from atop a pillar near the administration building.
Change is evident, too. On a typically balmy day this Southern autumn, a crowd gathered to watch a dozen members of the black Phi Beta Sigma fraternity step-dance to hip-hop music in front of the student union. The mix of students — black, white, Asian and Hispanic — enjoyed the scene, some snapping photos.
Life on campus hasn’t been all sunshine and magnolias.
The night President Barack Obama was re-elected, police were called after a shouting match erupted between white and black students. And in February 2014, a noose and an old Georgia flag with the Confederate battle emblem were draped on the Meredith statue. Several white Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity members were implicated, and their chapter was suspended.
Meredith, now 81, is treated as a celebrity when he returns to campus for football games, almost always wearing an Ole Miss hat. But he wrote in his memoir that the statue should be destroyed, rather than serve as “a public relations tool for the powers that be at Ole Miss, and a feel-good icon of brotherly love and racial reconciliation, frozen in gentle docility.”
Some current black students say the school could be more diverse.
“It’s a friendly environment now, but black representation is not prominent,” said Zacchaeus McEwan, an 18-year-old freshman who’s in the new mentoring program.
Logenvia Morris attends every game to cheer on her 22-year-old son, Aaron, who plays offensive line. He enrolled only after overcoming his grandfather’s deep skepticism about whether he’d be welcomed, she said.
“He always told me, ‘That school is not the place you want to send your son — unless you want to send the military with him,’” she said. But on a campus visit, people went out of their way to greet them: “I did not get that negativity that I was expecting.”
Online: University of Mississippi diversity report: http://bit.ly/1scsF3k
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus