Ole Miss is facing its history of segregation as it works to embrace and increase racial diversity. This renewed focus on changing its racist image comes as 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
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.
Ole Miss Addresses History of Segregation and Diversity - See mo
Obviously there is a huge need for change in this environmenment. But like anything as you grow, you grow by incorporating the changes needed along the way.
But I also believe like Hurdle there is NO need to sweep the past under the rug, and pretend it didn’t happen. Whether were dealing in science, or history, or heck the American diet things change, hopefully for the better, that is what we call history, Small steps over time .
Diversity is obviously needed and needs to be addressed.
Yes, there is no need to
Yes, there is no need to sweep the past under the rug. I believe the university should use our nation's past to show how much they have changed and how accepting they are of all minorities. I never knew that "Ole Miss" had another meaning. Maybe changing the name of the university would attract more minorities but they can not avoid their history. Even the confederate cemetery is on campus. They need to embrace their past while also showing that times have changed.
give us some statistics on our growth. praise us for our right doing because the moment something goes wrong we are taunted by it.
i agree when saying that people cannot pretend the past didn't happen. Even though it is not something to be proud of they need to embrace it and show that there is positive change coming. Small steps can be taken to show this change. Diversity is a big subject at campus around the nation so Ole Miss is right by addressing the problem.
The past is the past
It's inevitable, the past happened. A certain group of people were tread unfairly. Do I agree with it? No. For the past 50+ years, change has been taking place. College and universities have been the forefront of combating racism. They have give minorities the opportunity to earn the college degree and play sports on the same field as those that are no the minority. The result - minorities have proven themselves on and off the field. Will there be people out there that don't like that? Yes. Ignore them. Move on. And continue to succeed regardless of the roadblocks and doubters.
i love how you make it seem so easy." Ignore them. Move on." sounds too simple especially if we cant move on if cops our shooting our people with hands up
Slight changes should happen.
I think across the board everyone will agree that Ole Miss should not just sweep the past under the rug, but I think there are measures that they can take to improve. They say they want diversity, yet they commemorate Confederate soldiers? Ehh that's mixed signals to me that would make me feel uncomfortable. You want me to feel welcome here yet I have to face the honored confederacy? Excuse me? That's the thing that stood out to me...
They should not honor the
They should not honor the confederacy, but the article mentioned that confederate soldiers are buried on campus. Although we may not agree with their views, they were still Americans and deserve to be honored. They cannot cover up the fact that they are buried there, therefore family members will still visit and honor them. The university cannot dishonor the graves. I think that would be too far.
way too far and out of line. then the people would start destroying the university.
Slight changes should happen
You have some really good insight on the questions that are being raised in this situation. Going to a school with a lot of tradition and history is a place that I would want to go but the flag raising and the extreme of all the links to the history that shined on the negative parts of the history might not be a good idea.
There might be argument that the different links like the plantation reference or Ole Miss itself hits home and not very good for recruitment purposes. I can definitely understand that part but what about the people that go to the school for that initially?
What about the legacies and families that send their students there for that exact reason to share their experiences and come to an understanding about a culture and history that shaped this Nation.
The hardest part is really looking in the lens of each side of this and seeing which one would make the most sense at a University.
Sports bring unity
In my opinion, the demand for sports and the love of sports in this nation establishes unity between races. If you live in a state like Mississippi, there is bound to be the "old school" people that still have the same beliefs that were dominant back in the day. I think sports are a blessing to those that want equality. They bring people from all over the world and from all sorts of background on to one field, loving the same things. Should some school be more fair in scholarships and opportunity? Yes!
Sports bring unity
What a good point with sports. Taking it from this angle and really magnifying it from this perspective almost helps to see it at the big picture as well. Having the people that have those beliefs and want the traditions and history to stay there is good but also acknowledging those that have different views and want to experience their college life their own way and by the school of their choice should be respected. Lots to think about on the scholarships. Should people get a certain amount of money due to their race? Or should it be only based on performance on the field and in the classroom?
Many universities have to
Many universities have to have a certain amount of minorities in their school, so there are specific scholarships for African-Americans and Latinos. I do not think this is a problem as long as universities are not lowering the scholarship requirements in order to get more minority students. I believe that a student should meet the same requirements as everyone else for the same amount of money, no matter the race.
I cant agree with you more. there should be more scholarships for everyone. however, Mississippi is not the only state that still abides by the rules from the olden days . we have people in Missouri do it to my black friends all the time. it makes me feel very uncomfortable and I don't know how to handle it.
The school has character
This school has so much history and even if it's negative, it can bring some points up to the current students enrolled that they are at a school that has so much history and they should be proud of where they attend classes.
The comment about diversity and the changes the school is making is really interesting to try to figure out why those are particular changes and what is being done after those changes are made.
The guy that comes back that is seen as a celebrity and says that the statue should be taken down is his personal input but how does the rest of the students want and the faculty?
All of this should be discussed and in terms of how it would benefit the school. Schools like this I would think would have more of a African American population due to what it offers and brings to the origin of the real issues. To them it could be the negative side or just that the school simply doesn't offer their class. It could also be a reason such as the violence like how one dad was so concerned about.
now all the top news want to come out after what escalated in Ferguson. this makes me mad.
I agree. they definitely need
I agree. they definitely need to change