By James Hull
If ever I felt simultaneously good and bad about the notion of freedom of speech and the free expression of opinions, it was on the evening of Nov. 6 following the re-election of President Barack Obama.
Several Ole Miss students decided to protest the president’s re-election, gaining for themselves national attention and reinforcing for most of the nation the erroneous stereotype that Mississippi still is filled with racism, rancor and regression. Of course, as we Mississippians know, nothing can be further from the truth.
While it is still clear just how many of the students were the actual instigators of the protest action – according to most accounts the majority of these present were onlookers probably amazed at what they were seeing – what is clear is that racial epithets were thrown about and at least one protest fire was lit.
Despite my obvious dismay at such childish and boorish behavior on the part of tomorrow’s leaders, as I said, I still see some good as well as the lamentable.
What I see good is the unfettered, unfiltered expression of opinion on a college campus, regardless of how unpopular the cause. What the students did, in my opinion, was stupid. But it is what the university and the academy are all about. College students are formulating thoughts, ideas and opinions that are not yet fully formed. And because these thoughts ideas and opinions are still raw, so will the actions that reflect them. Under the cover of academic freedom, students are able to express opinions on a college campus that might otherwise be suppressed. That is a good thing. What they express and how they make their expressions is a good thing, irrespective of the content of the expression.
Unfortunately, what I also see regarding the incident carries many more negative ramifications than the single laudable element of free academic expression, all of which serve to defeat the furthering of the principles of diversity.
Let me begin with the well-known 1970 Fulton Chapel “Up With People” protest staged by a group of Black Ole Miss students wanting to bring attention to a dearth of black staff members and instructors on the campus. Two of those students were now-successful Tupelo attorney Kenneth Mayfield and current Ole Miss Assistant Provost Donald Cole. Both were kicked out of school and had to find paths to their respective successful career elsewhere.
The ramification is this: on a campus which harbored an atmosphere of racial intolerance, a legitimate student protest resulted in the ultimate negative sanction. But on the same campus, a student protest reflecting obvious racial intolerance – not to mention involving a fire which was a danger to public safety – goes virtually unpunished.
The irony is how both the lives of Cole and Mayfield have evolved into being much more faithful to the furthering of diversity than their Ole Miss experiences afforded them. Part of Cole’s charge is to make sure that diversity, and the pursuit of it, finds its way into every nook and corner of the university. And through his Mayfield Law Firm Charity Ball, Mayfield is able to provide college scholarship money to worthy college-bound students. Last year’s first place recipient was a promising and deserving young white Tupelo High School student.
But those ramifications from the Nov. 6 protest can only reflect back; the most pertinent ramification looks to the future.
Here is my question: How can a group of students who cannot accept an African-American as the president of their country and the leader of the free world, accept an African-American as the president of the local bank where they will one day become vice president? Or how will they be able to be loyal to a black department head or a black supervisor? What will they do then with the racial animus they are obviously beginning to harbor now?
We need our future leaders to display not just racial tolerance, but tolerance of sexual orientation, religious beliefs and national origins, because the future workplace will be densely populated with individuals who represent all of these groups.
If the Nov. 6 protest is an indication, it’s a sad commentary on the future of diversity.
James Hull is a community columnist, award-wining journalist and a political consultant. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.