November 9, 2012 11:17:19 AM
This week's ugly incident on the University of Mississippi campus is a stark reminder that race relations in Mississippi continue to be an issue, not just for the university but for our state.
Late Tuesday evening, in the hours immediately after President Barack Obama won re-election, approximately 400 students gathered in the Grove to protest, throw rocks and shout racial epithets. According to reports, the incident was fueled by the "gloating" of some black students over the re-election of our nation's first African-American president.
In turn, an undetermined number of Ole Miss students met in a confrontation. A student was quoted as saying that white students gathered on one side of the street, with black students on the other side. White students yelled racial slurs at the black students, according to the reports.
The university said there were no injuries. Two students were arrested, one for public drunkenness, the other for failure to obey police orders.
A report by Mississippi Public Broadcasting carried this particularly disturbing sound bite from one of the white students who was on the scene:
"(We were supporting) the Republican and Confederate side and they (the blacks) had their side."
The Confederate side?
It has been 151 years since the beginning of the Civil War and, paradoxically, 50 years since James Meredith enrolled at Ole Miss, prompting a deadly riot that remains one of our state's ugliest episodes.
Surely, we have moved beyond the idea that there is a "Confederate side," to embrace and defend.
Ole Miss officials, led by chancellor Dan Jones, moved quickly to denounce Tuesday's incident. Wednesday evening, an estimated 700 people turned out for a candlelight vigil on campus to promote unity and condemn the actions of those who shouted racial slurs.
It would be unfair to suggest that the attitudes of the few are representative of the student body. It is also unfair to suggest that Ole Miss officials have not taken every reasonable measure to distance the university from its regrettable past.
But what cannot be conveniently set aside is a simple fact: This incident did not happen at Mississippi State. It didn't happen at Southern Miss or East Mississippi Community College or any other Mississippi campus.
It happened at Ole Miss.
An uncomfortable, yet legitimate, question emerges: Is there something about the culture or climate at Ole Miss that encourages or tolerates this sort of conduct?
Under Jones' leadership, the university has done much to distance itself from those old images when Ole Miss stood as a defiant symbol of the Old South resistance to the Civil Rights movement.
Sadly, Jones' efforts have not always been embraced by Ole Miss supporters.
When Jones directed the school's band to stop playing "From Dixie, With Love," at sporting events because students yelled at the end of the tune, "The South will rise again," some Ole Miss people criticized Jones for yielding to a "politically correct" attitude.
But it has been that way at every turn, and far before Jones arrived on campus.
It wasn't until 1997, a full 35 years after Meredith became the first black student at Ole Miss, that the university banned the use of the Confederate Battle Flag, otherwise known as the Rebel Flag. That move, too, met stubborn resistance.
Likewise, when the university officially removed Colonel Reb as its mascot in 2003, criticism was far from muted. In fact, the "Bring Back Colonel Reb" movement still continues today, having gained support from the university's adoption of the Black Bear as its official mascot, another move promoted by Jones.
For many Ole Miss supporters, these moves are right and proper. The Rebel Flag, Colonel Reb and "The South Will Rise Again," are viewed as hurtful and insensitive.
Others see those things simply as a means to honor the university's storied past.
They are the people who cling to Ole Miss as the proud, enduring embodiment of the Old South. But attempts to sanitize history ultimately produce more harm than good. If Ole Miss wants to perpetuate the bygone era of the Old South, it will not be allowed to pick and choose. Once that choice is made, the good comes with the bad, too.
The Confederate "side" may be remembered for its regional pride, honor and courage. But it must also be remembered for slavery, cruelty and oppression.
Most Ole Miss supporters see the danger of embracing those old images and attitudes.
But there are some students who do not, as Tuesday's incident sadly indicates.
There is nothing to suggest that these racist students -- and make no mistake, people who use racial slurs are indeed racists -- learned that behavior at Ole Miss. No, they brought those attitudes with them. They learned those attitudes at home, a generational legacy that sadly persists in our state.
The harshest assessment would be that Ole Miss is still the school of choice for those who embrace the Old South, with all its glories and all its prejudices and biases. In some quarters, at least, there is still some "white pride" defiance among Ole Miss supporters, despite the best efforts of the university's leadership to create a post-racial Ole Miss. It seems likely that the students who shouted racial slurs emerged from this mindset.
Ole Miss and the state of Mississippi suffer for it.
Our state has made progress, it is true. But we are not there yet.
Not even close.