Oxford, Miss. – More than a week after desecration to the statue of civil rights icon James Meredith at the University of Mississippi, students, faculty members and Chancellor Daniel Jones are sharing anger and frustration as the investigation continues without any arrests.
“I didn’t really realize what racism was until I got here,’’ Marcus Daniels, a junior from Brandon, Miss. said during an open-mike forum for students earlier this week. “I never ever felt my blackness or consciousness of who I was.”
Daniels said the incident changed the way he feels about attending the state’s flagship university and has made him more aware of race.
Race has been a big topic on campus all week since three freshmen students from Georgia were identified as suspects but not charged in the vandalism incident. Last Sunday, the university’s police department found a rope tied around the statue’s neck like a noose, along with a flag displaying the Confederate battle symbol draped around the shoulders and the back. The FBI is leading the investigation of vandalism to the Meredith statue, which symbolizes his integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962.
Meredith’s desire to attend the all-white institution led to campus riots, two deaths and dozens of injuries. Meredith ultimately enrolled with the escort of hundreds of federal authorities, on the orders of President John F. Kennedy, an event Chancellor Jones alluded to in a letter he released Wednesday.
“The institutionalized racism that in 1962 became an indelible part of our national memory provides a backdrop to our conversations about race today,” Jones said in the letter. “The stain it left on American history dictates for us both a special obligation and a larger opportunity to lead on issues of race in higher education, whether in Mississippi or across America.”
Jones noted: “Words alone cannot convey how much I regret the pain, anxiety and fear, and in this most recent case intimidation, caused by any expression of hate on this campus.’’
Earlier this week, University of Mississippi students voiced their opinions via “Talk It Out,” a forum held outside the student union. Junior William Fowler helped organize the event and said that the open mike session was necessary.
“We decided that one of the best ways to help everybody would be to provide an outlet of expression to allow students, faculty, administration to get up on stage and voice their opinions and let their opinions be heard,” Fowler said.
Plenty of students stepped up; they also received bookmarks and flyers marking the renewal of a campaign to “Respect the M.” Developed by the William Winter Institute and the university’s department for multicultural affairs, the program was launched during the freshman orientation in summer 2013, designed to encourage tolerance and acceptance. The bookmarks list 10 commandments of the campaign with phrases like “Check your biases” and “Avoid hateful speech,” among others.
“I have every right as a black student to like the University of Mississippi, and I have every right to enjoy it without this idea that racism is the standard,” said Sierra Mannie, a junior from Ridgeland, Miss who spoke out this week. “I think so many students at the university come from places where they don’t interact with black people, any type of social minority.”
Non-minority students also took the stage.
“We are the university – the university is whatever we want to be,’’ said Drake Davis, a sophomore from Jacksonville, Ala. “I don’t think it’s fair that those three students got to define what this university is. “So I wanted to just get that out there and just remind everyone that you can’t control everything, but you can control you.”
Graduate student Laura Bruster from Egypt spoke of her love of the university and her desire for it to be a better place.
“I love being on campus,’’ Bruster said. “But I’m not okay with being marginalized. I’m not okay with police stopping me because I am a suspicious person. But if nobody’s going to try to make a difference, nothing is going to happen.”
Freshman Arman Rehmann of Norcross, Ga., said he was angry and hoped the incident didn’t cause people to judge Georgia as racist – or the campus.
“It makes you mad seeing something like this, but Ole Miss is a great place and stuff like this shouldn’t be happening,” Rehmann said. “Seeing these kids putting the old flag up there and disrespecting James Meredith is just stupid.”