The University of Mississippi’s long-standing struggles with racial issues have hardly occurred in isolation. In a very real sense, its trials and transformations have been those of the entire state.
It was not the university in isolation that insisted on fighting the admission of James Meredith as the first black student at any historically white educational institution in the state in 1962. That futile battle was fought at the insistence of and with the full force of the white political establishment behind it. Ole Miss was merely the highly symbolic battleground.
Similarly, Ole Miss’ recognition that the school’s long association with symbols of the Old South, coupled with the official resistance and violent rebellion surrounding Meredith’s admission, was a hindrance to its future viability as a nationally recognized institution of higher learning. And it has has mirrored the wider Mississippi struggle to overcome a negative image shaped by a violent racist past.
The university still stands in for the state as a whole as it continues to struggle with issues of race and inclusiveness. Any Mississippian, whether associated with Ole Miss or not, can respect and appreciate the university’s willingness to deal openly and honestly with very difficult, sensitive and emotional issues.
The most recent round of discussions in this vein were prompted by an incident in which the statue of Meredith on campus – itself a symbol of the university’s coming to terms with its past – was desecrated by a couple of students. Chancellor Dan Jones on Friday released a plan that outlines steps the university will take to create “a more inclusive and welcoming environment.” Specific actions will include creation of a vice chancellor-level position to promote diversity and inclusion, as well as an assortment of steps designed to balance the remaining names and symbols of a racially unjust past with greater historical context and with an increase in those of a new and more open era.
The name Ole Miss isn’t going away. But even to have a discussion of its appropriate contextual usage, given the term’s origins in the context of slavery, took unusual fortitude by those involved. University leaders came to the right conclusion: Ole Miss is a term of affection that in its contemporary context doesn’t have a negative connotation, and is too much a part of the university’s identity to cast aside.
No doubt there are alumni, students and others who think the emphasis on these issues is unnecessary or overwrought. But what better place than the state’s oldest institution of higher learning to wrestle with the oldest dilemma facing Mississippi and Mississippians: Coming to terms with our state’s racial past, and charting the best course for a future freed from a preoccupation with it.