Tomorrow the Associated Student Body of the University of Mississippi will vote on a resolution that, if approved, would ask the university to remove the Mississippi state flag from campus grounds due to its “[incorporation of] the Confederate battle flag in its design.”
Drafted by student senator and College Democrats president Allen Coon and sponsored by a variety of campus organizations, the resolution contends that the flag, which bears the Confederate battle flag in the upper-left corner, “undermines efforts to promote diversity and create a safe, tolerant academic environment for all students,” and that its removal would “advance the university’s efforts to create an inclusive space for all students.” The resolution needs to achieve a majority in the 50-seat student senate to pass, and as of press time, supporters believe they’re just five votes short.
The flag currently flies atop a 30-foot pole in an area in the middle of campus known as “the Circle.” On Friday, the resolution’s co-sponsors held a rally there in an effort to pressure student senators who are on the fence. More than 200 students, faculty, staff, and community members gathered in support of the resolution. They were met with a counter-rally of about a dozen or so members of the Arkansas-based Ku Klux Klan group the International Keystone Knights, as well as members from the League of the South, a notorious Dixie hate group. The groups came not only to defend the Confederate battle flag but to inflame racial tensions, proclaiming “black lives don’t matter” and expressing a desire to re-segregate the South. Notably, no University of Mississippi students participated in the counter-rally.
“If you’re supporting this flag, you’re also supportive of some of the ideologies from these hate groups,” said senior Buka C. Okoye, a public policy major and president of the university’s chapter of the NAACP. “Which side are you on?”
The fight to remove the state flag from the University of Mississippi is only the latest manifestation of a statewide effort against the Confederate battle flag. City officials in Oxford, the college town home to the University of Mississippi’s flagship institution, recently voted to stop flying the flag on public grounds, as did officials in the city of Greenwood. Last week, hundreds of protesters marched through the streets of Jackson, the state capitol, in support of a ballot initiative that seeks to remove the Confederate iconography from the state flag as early as 2018.
These efforts come four months after the murders of nine African-American parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, carried out by a right-wing white nationalist with a deep appreciation of the Confederate States of America. The massacre sparked a wave of public outcry against Confederate symbolism, leading many Southern states to rescind some of their reverence for the Confederacy: Alabama and South Carolina removed the flag from state capitol grounds soon after the killings, while Texas, Virginia, and Maryland are all in the process of phasing out the sale of license plates featuring the racist emblem.
The Magnolia State, however, has held steady.
Led by Tea Party favorite Governor Phil Bryant, the Mississippi state government has ignored recent calls from thousands of residents and some of the states’ highest elected officials—including both of its Republican senators and the speaker of the State House of Representatives—to change its state flag. (Six other states evoke Confederate imagery in their state flags, but Mississippi’s state flag is unique in having the Confederate battle flag displayed in its entirety.) According to Bryant, changing the 121-year-old flag would “supersede the will of the people”: In a 2001 statewide referendum, 65 percent of Mississippians voted to keep the flag as it is.
For Okoye, the head of the University of Mississippi’s NAACP, the tense divide across the states makes the resolution that much more important.
“Many people recognize the University of Mississippi as the institution for white supremacy,” he said. “If you can get the flag taken down here, there will be a lot more pressure on the capitol to change it in the next session. It would be huge if we as a university took it down. Many of our representatives are going to have to reanalyze and think about how they see the flag and how offensive it is to people living in this state.”
Some of the university’s top administrators, including Interim Chancellor Morris H. Stocks, have publicly condemned the state flag and have asked that it be changed. According to Okoye, the university could remove the flag unilaterally without student approval, but he thinks such a move would be counterproductive. “Passing the resolution symbolizes a collective identity and a collective idea that we all want to see this flag come down,” he said. “Having the school remove the flag on its own wouldn’t accomplish that.”
This isn’t the first time students from the University have fought to rid the school of Confederate symbolism. “In 2003, we ceased to use Colonel Reb, a physical manifestation of the Old South’s ‘Southern gentleman,’ as our mascot,” explained Allen Coon, the head of the College Democrats. “In 2009, our band stopped playing ‘From Dixie With Love’ during sporting events,” he continued (fans would chant “the South will rise again” during the song’s closing). “Each time the university has sought to shed Confederate symbolism, these actions were met with opposition. We have no reason to expect any different when the flag comes down.”
For Dominique Scott, an African-American studies and sociology double major who is a member of Students Against Social Injustice (part of the nationwide United Students Against Sweatshops movement), as well as secretary of the university’s NAACP chapter, the resolution is only the first step in a long journey.
“I’m extremely optimistic about the vote on Tuesday, but at the same time, I understand that it might not pass,” she said. “However, I’m still equally optimistic about what students are going to continue to work on regardless of the vote, such as renaming the buildings on our campus that are named after prominent white supremacists and segregationists, and also getting rid of the Confederate monument that sits at the Circle.”
Scott believes that passing the resolution to remove the flag would help the movement with the rest of their goals—and it would mean a lot to her, personally.
“Seeing the flag come down would mean that my school is ready to institutionalize inclusion,” she said. “It would mean that my school is finally taking a stance on the side of history that it wants to be on. I really don’t see it as whether or not it will come down, but when.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to the Confederate battle flag as the “Stars and Bars.” It is the Confederacy’s first official flag, not its battle flag, that is referred to as the Stars and Bars. This piece also originally stated that the resolution, if passed, would result in the flag coming down. The resolution, which did pass, supports the removal of the flag, but the decision is ultimately up to the school’s Chancellor.