Oxford, Miss., March 9 — A home-grown, student-led campaign delivered four powerful body blows to racism here at the University of Mississippi during the first week in March.
UM’s Graduate Student Council Senate, Associated Student Body Senate, Faculty Senate and Staff Council all voted “yes” to removing an infamous Confederate statue from its central place on campus. These four organizations make up UM’s shared governance. The Staff Council represents over 2,000 people, ranging from custodial workers to the university registrar.
The GSCS resolution included a clause denouncing white supremacy. The vote by senators in ASBS, representing undergraduate students, was unexpectedly unanimous, which evoked applause and celebratory tears. Almost 58 percent of student comments received by ASBS supported removing the racist statue.
The university, founded in 1848 by white plantation owners as an alternative to sending their sons to abolitionist-influenced Harvard or Yale, has been nicknamed “Ole Miss,” a reference to a plantation owner’s white wife.
The Confederate statue, erected in 1906, was part of a nationwide white-supremacist propaganda campaign launched after the Civil War and emancipation of enslaved African people. The statue has been a rallying point for the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups, including in 1962, when segregationists gathered there to oppose integration of UM by Black U.S. military veteran James Meredith.
White rioters attacked the dormitory where Meredith was staying and set fire to the military car of a U.S. Army general and staff, who barely escaped with their lives. Two people were killed and 300 injured.
Ralph Eubanks, African-American UM graduate and former director of publishing at the Library of Congress, commented to The Daily Mississippian that when he was a student, his mother did not want to come to campus. She said, “I can’t look at the Lyceum [directly behind the statue] without seeing blood running down the steps.” (March 7)
‘Now they are woke’
The campaign against the statue was initiated by Students Against Social Injustice, part of United Students Against Sweatshops, a U.S. student-led worker association.
SASI President Quay Williams, an African-American sophomore from the Mississippi Delta, commented to WW, “The campus is awake because we’ve been fighting for a while against the racism of the statue. Now they are woke.”
Emrys Gill told WW that the campaign included many strategy meetings, appointments with the administration, marches last April and November and a spirited Feb. 23 protest. SASI organizer Gill is a white sociology major from Jackson, Miss.
The Feb. 23 march opposed white supremacist groups The Hiwaymen and Confederate 901, who began their rally that day at the statue with a prayer of thanks to enslaving plantation owners. The counterrally, organized by the Black Student Union, SASI and other groups, drowned them out with anti-racist chanting.
A turning point in the struggle came the night of Feb. 23. As the national anthem played at an at-home UM college basketball game with the University of Georgia, seven UM players knelt in protest. Six were African-American and one Latinx.
They were the first UM student athletes in any sport to protest during the anthem and the first-ever such protest by basketball players at a major university since sports protests against racism began in 2016 with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s actions.
‘We will not stop’
With the athletes’ action, the campaign for removal picked up steam. Student organizer Williams commented that the Feb. 23 white-supremacist rally also called the question as to what side people were on: “If they didn’t vote for removal [on the resolution], that would show them as more obviously in support of racists.”
The four resolutions go now to UM’s interim chancellor, who will likely send the issue to the board of trustees for Mississippi higher education.
As for next steps, organizer Gill emphasized, “For the University of Mississippi — students and everybody — the statue is not down yet. The votes are a necessary step, but we are not finished. We will not stop until the construction crew shows up and takes down the statue.”