Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Defiling of James Meredith Statue On Old Miss Campus Generates Outrage

Statue of James Meredith (Photo-ClarionLedger)
Earlier today about 150 students and employees of different races, backgrounds and ages from the University of Mississippi (known as 'Ole Miss) held a vigil around the statue of James Meridith that was first erected on the campus in Oxford, Mississippi in 2006.

Such a vigil might be expected being that it's Black History Month and Meredith was the first African-American student to integrate Ole Miss back in October of 1962 during the height of the civil rights struggle. 

Sadly the on-campus vigil was held in response to an incident early Sunday morning when two unidentified white men wearing camouflage pants placed a noose around the neck of the statue of the civil rights icon and draped a Georgia state flag (the older one dominated by a Confederate flag prominently displayed on the right side) around it before yelling racial slurs and running off.

According to a article, a contractor named Mark McMillan about to work on the air-conditioning system of a nearby campus library witnessed the incident just after 6:30am Sunday then alerted an Ole Miss employee who notified university police.

If anything positive can come of such a deplorable expression of hate and ignorance it's the overwhelming sense of outrage expressed across social media, news media and in person by the vast majority of the campus community including teachers, students and administrators.

The story has justifiably gone national and reaction has been swift. Today the New York Times reported that the FBI has stepped in to assist the investigation at the invitation of the university.

The university's alumni association offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and capture of the two men seen on Sunday and the incident triggers memories of a tumultuous and violent chapter of American history. 

Meredith, an Air Force veteran of African and Choctaw descent, was inspired to apply to the University of Mississippi after hearing John F. Kennedy's inauguration speech. After being denied admission to the then-all white school, he filed suit against the university in 1961 with the help of the NAACP in a case that eventually went to the US Supreme Court; which ruled in his favor.

President Kennedy deployed hundreds of Federal Marshals as well as soldiers from the US Army and National Guard to quell the violent riots that erupted across the Ole Miss campus as staunch segregationists (many bussed in from out of state) protested the integration of the school. French journalist Paul Guihard was shot and killed during the riots; one of two people killed and hundreds injured - the riots inspired Bob Dylan to write the protest song "Oxford Town".

The statue incident on Sunday morning shows that the flames of such hatred are not so easily extinguished in the minds of some; however few they may be.

Such an offensive act certainly cannot diminish Meredith's contributions to desegregation and support of voter, education and civil rights for all Americans.

But it's a slight to Mississippi's efforts to evolve beyond the perception of the state as a bastion of racism and it's legacy of violence against, and suppression of African-Americans during the 19th and 20th century. According to during the first half of the 19th century Mississippi was the nation's top cotton producer and thus one of the world's biggest suppliers; a distinction that depended on the enforced labor of thousands of African-Americans.

That legacy continued from the Post-Reconstruction era and Jim Crow right up through the violent reaction to James Meredith's enrollment at Ole Miss in 1962.

Civil rights leader Medgar Evers (a WWII veteran who served in Europe) was shot in the back and killed in June of 1963 in the carport of his Jackson, Mississippi home after a meeting with NAACP attorneys; and the disappearance and murder of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner took place near Philadelphia, Mississippi in June of 1964.   

It's not my point to vilify Mississippi, it's important to remember these horrific events to put the defiling of the statue into context; and help explain why it has provoked such deep outrage.

Current Ole Miss student Willie Toles, Jr. a black biology major was quoted in today's NY Times article asking the question: "What motive do you have for doing these types of things?"

Indeed, that is the troubling question. Even if the two suspects are found, will we ever really know the answer?

Mississippi might not be burning anymore, but after all these years, even today in the 21st century; something is clearly still smoldering.

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