Forward: The University of Mississippi takes down the state flag
On October 26, 2015, the University of Mississippi stopped flying the Mississippi state flag.
"50 years from now the University and others around the campus will see this as the moment that we became the University of Mississippi,” said James M. Thomas, assistant professor of sociology and sponsor of the campus NAACP chapter.
The flag came down early in the morning with only a few in attendance, including UPD officers and Interim Chancellor Morris Stocks.
“I am ecstatic that the flag has come down here,” NAACP chapter president Chukwuebuka “Buka” Okoye said to The Daily Mississippian the morning of the flag’s removal.
"It’s something that should have already happened a long time ago. And it's great that we were able to do it this year. Those kind of steps could have been taken in the early 2000’s.”
Not all students on campus approve of its removal. Associated Student Body senator Andrew Soper has publicly called for its return.
“I believe as a Mississippi-funded university, we should fly the state flag of the State of Mississippi,” Soper said to The Daily Mississippian on Oct. 27, 2015. “Ole Miss received over $7,000,000 last year from the state of Mississippi.”
Soper said members of the ASB Senate receive financial aid from the University and state; the Faculty Senate members are paid with state of Mississippi money.
“They should be supporting the state that offers these funds,” Soper said.
The governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant said the school’s decision goes against the people of Mississippi.
“Mississippians overwhelmingly voted in 2001 to adopt the current Mississippi state flag,” Bryant said. “I believe publicly funded institutions should respect the law as it is written today. It clearly states ‘The state flag shall receive all the respect and ceremonious etiquette given the American flag.’ ”
Some on campus, like Coach Hugh Freeze, support the administration's decision.
“It’s the right thing for this University, and hopefully the state will follow suit. (Taking down the flag) represents adequately our core values because this state is so hospitable,” Freeze said. “While (the flag) means a lot of positive things for a lot of people, it also brings up some hurt feelings for some too and I just think it’s time that we all move forward together.”
The current state flag with the Confederate battle emblem in the top left corner was adopted by the Legislature in 1894. In 2001, there was debate over redesigning the flag to remove the emblem. A statewide referendum to remove it was defeated. Following the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina this past June, the debate moved to the forefront once again.
The NAACP and Students Against Social Injustice, or SASI developed a plan during the summer to launch an initiative to have the flag removed from University property.
"We didn't expect in the spring that our activities in the fall would be what they were,” Thomas said.
The NAACP hosted an open forum on Southern heritage in September. After the forum, SASI helped them launch a letter drop campaign. One member of the chapter walked into the Lyceum and dropped a letter explaining their desire to remove the flag. The next week, two members dropped letters. The next week, three members dropped letters. This process continued until administrators called all the chapter members in for a meeting where they voiced their concerns of Confederate iconography on campus.
According to Okoye, the administration seemed adamant that nothing was going to change. The flag would remain.
"Without momentum, those kinds of demands don’t carry very far," Thomas said.
A rally took place on Oct. 16, 2015 and drew a crowd of around 400 students, faculty and community members.
"The rally did two things. One, it sort of put it out there that it was more than five or six students on campus who were frustrated about Confederate iconography,” Thomas said. “Two, while the rally took place, a counter-protest also took place from the KKK in Georgia, which makes standing with the flag seem extremist.”
The rally helped spur an ASB resolution drafted by Okoye and ASB senator Allen Coon. Coon introduced the resolution and ASB held a heated debate for three hours on Oct. 20, 2015.
"One of the real game changers was towards the end, when one of the senators stood up,” Thomas said. This senator had been against taking the flag down, “Then he saw the rally and the KKK showed up. He began listening that night at the debate and he realized that that flag being up there did harm to a certain group of students on campus, so that speech in and of itself was a real game changer."
Including the ASB senators, there were nearly 100 students in Bryant room 209 to watch the debate over the flag’s removal. After reaching capacity, the overflow went to Brevard 134, where a crowd of more than 200 gathered to witness the historic debate on a livestream.
The resolution passed 33-15-1.
The verdict divided the student body. But, Okoye said he experienced the tension both before and after the decision was reached.
"We are at a place where you have to be polarized,” he said. “You either agree with me or you don't."
After ASB passed the resolution, the faculty senate, the law school, the graduate and professional council and the staff council all voted, all almost unanimously, to pass it as well. This put the final decision in the hands of Stocks.
Six days after ASB voted, the flag officially came down.
"I was surprised, knowing the history of this campus, knowing what I know about James Meredith coming to this campus,” Okoye said. “This University and this institution is just known for not being proactive about how it deals with social justice or the morally right thing to do. For me, that's not something I would have seen my freshman year or my sophomore year."
At the 2016 IMAGE awards, the (University of Mississippi) NAACP chapter was awarded the Chairman's Award for its student-led efforts on campus.
"I was trying to find examples of where another NAACP Youth and College division activated itself and then, within 6 months, accomplished something,” Thomas said. “There's no historical precedent for it."
Stocks said in a press conference hours after the flag was taken down, “There was full agreement by the senior leadership team. We were careful in our considerations and our planning.”
“Mississippi and its people are known far and wide for hospitality and a warm and welcoming culture, but our state flag does not communicate those values,” Stocks said. “Our state needs a flag that speaks to who we are. It should represent the wonderful attributes about our state that unite us, not those that still divide us.”
Even in the aftermath, the debate continued. Alumni favoring the flag’s return erected a billboard near Batesville calling for its return. But on campus, the removal of the flag launched further conversations about diversity and inclusion.
"Now I feel more optimistic, I feel empowered to do more,” Okoye said. “We can change our campus. We can speak up and the campus will listen."
Published in The Ole Miss 2016