No university has done more to come to terms with its Confederate and racial past than the University of Mississippi. Yesterday, the announcement that the school would install a plaque to add “context” to the Confederate statue at the entrance to Lyceum Circle brings this process one step further. The engraving on the plaque will read:

As Confederate veterans were passing from the scene in increasing numbers, memorial associations built monuments in their memory all across the South. This statue was dedicated by citizens of Oxford and Lafayette County in 1906. On the evening of September 30, 1962, the statue was a rallying point where a rebellious mob gathered to prevent the admission of the University’s first African American student. It was also at this statue that a local minister implored the mob to disperse and allow James Meredith to exercise his rights as an American citizen. On the morning after that long night, Meredith was admitted to the University and graduated in August 1963.

This historic structure is a reminder of the University’s past and of its current and ongoing commitment to open its hallowed halls to all who seek truth and knowledge and wisdom.

According to Chancellor Jeffrey S. Vitter, “The placement of this plaque puts this statue into proper context and affirms, as in our UM Creed, our respect for the dignity of each person.” Providing what I assume most public historians understand as context would involve a more detailed statement about the history of the monument and the individuals and organizations responsible for its dedication. This is most commonly done not on a plaque, but on a wayside panel, where text and images can tell a more coherent narrative.

While I applaud the steps taken here, I see this more as an intentional act of appropriation or of claiming this site from those who view it solely in terms of “Confederate heritage” for moral reflection. This is what I hear in Vitter’s comment above.

The wording on the plaque raises a number of questions. Was there no representation from the university community in the organization and dedication of this monument? More importantly, who made up this “rebellious mob” in 1962? Was it made up primarily of “Ole Miss” students? If so, why is that fact not made explicit?

It seems to me that a “rebellious mob of Ole Miss” students” would have been a much more powerful catalyst for moral reflection among the current students, teachers and the rest of the community.

25 comments add yours

  1. What a distortion of history. 500 Federal marshals played a lot bigger role than one local minister in integrating the university. But that would imply that the Federal government was necessary to end segregation. Ole Miss would prefer the myth of reasonable white locals prevailing over hot heads.

    • Yes, I’m sure in that mythology that the two people dead and 166 wounded (including 79 of the 127 Marshals (who included enforcement personnel from other departments/agencies to fill out the marshals ranks) wished that the good reverend had spoken a little earlier or maybe they were all just clumsy and tripped. Of course, maybe he was distracted by the mythologically unnecessary arrival of the federalized Mississippi National Guardsmen and Company A, 503rd MP Battalion from Fort Bragg.

  2. “Many hours of study and thought have gone into the design and wording of the plaque, Vitter said.”

    Wonder what that study consisted of? Historical research is one thing, and, as M.D. and Pat point out, they seemed to have flubbed that. Audience research is another. What I mean is, does this “context” and its wording address the pre-knowledge and questions about the statue?

    Did they, for instance, recognize that people who walk by/know about the statue wonder about the context of its placement among the passing generation of Confederate soldiers? Were they reminded of its non-commemorative uses (rallying point for a mob?) These are excellent contexts, and should be there, but do they meet audience expectations?

    I strongly suspect that folks who are critical of the statue (an increasing number of our student body, btw) centralize not the veteran story, not the integration story, but the actual Confederacy here. People look at it and think not of veterans, but of the Mississippi Declaration of Immediate Causes. Addressing those qualms (If that’s what passers-by think of) should be the main point. You lose credibility when visitors can tell you are avoiding what they’re thinking.

    And, what are the desired outcome goals? The chief one–and this is perfectly legitimate–is to make a statement about the current values of the university… Meredith admitted, hallowed halls open to everyone. This is who we are. Again, fine.

    To follow up on that…. will the university be conducting audience survey studies to see if people who walk by/know about the statue actually view/experience the thing differently because of the new plaque?

    I suspect not because for the university, making the statement is the point, not the educational value or a critical engagement with a troubled past. And that’s fine, I guess.

  3. Below is my response to this from my Facebook page and email that I sent Chancellor Vitter:

    While a plaque would be welcomed in contextualizing the Confederate monument in the Lyceum Circle, this version will not do. Yes Confederate veterans were dying (had been since the war), but the early 20th century is also the beginning of Jim Crow, the legitimized disfranchisement of African Americans by individual southern states. The creation and placement of these monuments across the South cannot be understood completely without an awareness of Jim Crow. These are WHITE people placing concrete, marble, and bronze statues with the WHITE interpretation of the Civil War in WHITE public places. The pageantry of these dedications involved speeches glorifying the Confederacy, its soldiers, faithful women, and loyal slaves. Within the context of the early 20th century, WHITE southerners argued that though the Cause was Lost, at least society as a whole had figured out how to solve the race problem. Under Jim Crow that society was WHITE people and the race problem referred to ways WHITE people needed to control the labor, minds, and bodies of BLACK people.

    This is soft shit. It offers nothing further to contextualize the monument. The mention of James Meredith is window dressing and does nothing to acknowledge why the racist crowd gathered around that monument. That WHITE crowd in 1962 knew exactly what that monument symbolized: OLE MISS for WHITE people. No BLACK people at OLE MISS.

    Also, releasing this information on a Friday afternoon at 3:00pm before Spring Break is further evidence that for the administration “Old times are not forgotten.” No time given for critique or criticism, with the fervent hope that any debate will be forgotten after a week spent in Cabo. UGH.

      • http://hottytoddy.com/2016/03/10/ole-miss-puts-history-in-context-with-plaque/

        The link above was the first chance most students and alumni got to hear the news. Initially, the email only went out to faculty. Students received an email at around 3:23pm on the last day before Spring Break. That is standard operating procedure at UofM. Anything deemed a bit controversial, especially dealing with the racial history of the school, gets sent out as close to a break as possible.

        You’ll notice that Susan Hathaway, everyone’s favorite busybody, is the first to comment. I would note that “outside agitation” has a very special place in Mississippi history. During the CRM, it was “outside agitators” that instigated the riot at UofM as well as “outside agitators” that challenged Jim Crow segregation at lunch counters and bus stops. The dominant narrative of the state is a place of rural harmony, where the only the outside world is the source of all malcontent. This is not a great environment for self-reflection, as evidenced by the bland description that will soon be placed near the Confederate monument at the university.

    • I agree with this. If this statue is not simply the efforts of the people of Oxford and Lafayette County. There is another monument for that on the Oxford town square. This one is directly related to tying Ole Miss directly to the Confederate cause of the war itself. It is the same reason that the Confederate Battle Flag was the single symbol of Ole Miss for generations. The same reason the night before the riot, Gov. Barnett was wearing a CBF. The same reason there is a confederate cemetery on campus. Saying this statue represents the desire to remember some dying old confederate veterans who would otherwise be forgotten is just wrong. I appreciate that Ole Miss still has a ways to go, i.e. a lot of Alumni it’s can’t afford to upset. I don’t think this adds context so much as it gives a neat excuse not to deal with a much bigger contextual mess.

      • I think some additional historic context might help. There is a Confederate cemetery on campus because the campus served as a hospital after the battle of Shiloh. The monument on campus is specifically dedicated to the University Greys, the regiment formed by the student body when war broke out and the university closed. The point being, the cemetery and statue have direct connections to Ole Miss and its history. I think it’s powerful and special to have this statue and the Meredith statue on opposite sides of the Lyceum.

        • it was the University Grey’s use of the Confederate Battle Flag that was the reason, or perhaps pretext, for the school’s adoption of the CBF as a symbol going back to the 40s. My point was that it was not a memorial of the town to it’s own, but exclusively Ole Miss. It is powerful to keep the statue there, but the context of it is hardly reflected in this new plaque. The plaque seeks to water down what it means as a way of avoiding the acknowledgment of the very intentional alignment of Ole Miss with the University Greys and therefore the Lost Cause. It certainly explains why it was a “rallying point” for the rebellious mob, which were both students and non-students who drove in from all over.

  4. Wherever these stories pop up, some of the same people always comment, usually in a way to dishonestly suggest that they’re local taxpayers.

    • Susan Hathaway loves to comment online and in person in the affairs of every other city, but is a no show when it comes to VMFA, where it all started.

  5. Interesting essay. And one can’t help but compare it to the current controversy at Harvard University Law School regarding that school’s connection to slavery and slave-trafficking. In that case, Harvard Law student’s are seeking to alter the school’s seal because it depicts the family crest of Isaac Royal. Royal bequeathed part of his estate to Harvard to create the first law professorship at Harvard Law School, and the odious symbol of slavery and racism has remained prominently featured by the school ever since. Until the symbol is removed, I think a plaque which fully contextualizes the horrors of the middle passage and Harvard’s immediate connection to it is most appropriate.

    I wonder how many African-American students attended Harvard Law School in 1963?

  6. A bit more in response to Kendall. The record of Harvard on minorities is not great. The university was not particularly welcoming to Jews and Catholics and in the 1920s it expelled gays.

    The first black student admitted to Harvard was Beverly Williams in 1847. He died of TB before the academic term began. Only three balcks attended Harhard between 1850 and the Civil War. None of them graduated. It was not until 1869 that the first black Harvardians received their diplomas.

    The first three graduates in 1869 included one each from the med school, the law school, and the dental school.

    By 1959 black students were being admitted in large numbers. Before that, blacks were in nearly every graduating class, but often in very small numbers.

    Source: Blacks at Harvard: A Documentary History of African-American Experience

  7. Here’s some fun stuff for Pat Young:

    First up, a link to a photograph taken at the Harvard Law Cass of ’63 50th reunion. The whole “large numbers” thing seems to have passed this class by (everyone in the photograph is white)

    https://www.google.com/search?q=harvard+law+school+1963&biw=1920&bih=955&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwji3o6Un8PLAhWBaz4KHZ_9DXgQ_AUIBygC#imgrc=TYR_ZzN6_y3_tM%3A

    Evidently, the “large numbers” thing also went entirely unnoticed by the Harvard Medical School Class of ’63 . Here is a photo from their 50th reunion. See if you can find any African-Americans (hint: there aren’t any)

    https://www.google.com/search?q=harvard+medical+school+1963&biw=1920&bih=955&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjnzOGNoMPLAhWJWz4KHcHnAXoQ_AUIBigB#imgrc=f9C77hS9FZ_EHM%3A

    Guess where else the “large numbers” thing went unnoticed? Dartmouth. Below is a photo of the all-white 1963 Dartmouth football team. It would seem that if the U.S. Marshalls really wanted to keep themselves occupied desegregating stuff, there was plenty of work up North to do. For that matter, they could have started with JFK’s all-white cabinet. Oh, and the FBI. It was all-white in 1963. I wonder why the U.S. Marshalls didn’t storm the FBI offices and desegregate them?

    • ArthurP

      Why do you think it is “fun” that whites dominated the Harvard Med and law schools in 1963? The lack of blacks in universities before the 1960s was partially remedied through Affirmative Action, but, as you rightly imply, discrimination was so widespread that it needs to be kept in place.

      The exclusion of blacks from the FBI by Hoover was well known. It was one reason the Bureau spent little time before the 1960s investigating racist attacks in the South. The FBI was a contributor to white terrorism through inaction.

  8. Just to continue with the education theme: Georgetown was the first American college with a president of African descent. Patrick Healy, the son of an Irish slaveowner and a slave, became president of the college during Reconstruction.

    • Sadly, Georgetown did not desegregate in admissions until the Civil Rights era.

  9. I’m glad to see folks here remember the contribution of the U.S. Marshals Service. As one who works for the USMS Investigative Operations Gang Unit, I can tell you that relics and plaques to that event are hanging and presented throughout our headquarters. Many Marshals were injured in the riot that ensued. It is a shame that they are completely left out of this generic plaque. It is an important part of the context that should be included. – Michael Aubrecht

  10. Perhaps RFK’s recollection would be appropriate:

    I think last night was the worst night I ever spent….
    …[The deputies] were out there with instructions not to fire. They were fired on, they were hit, things were thrown at them. It was an extremely dangerous situation. …

    … And I think it was that close. If the tear gas hadn’t arrived in that last five minutes, and if these men hadn’t remained true to their orders and instructions, if they had lost their heads and started firing at the crowd, you would have had immense bloodshed, and I think it would have been a very tragic situation. …

    So to hear these reports that were coming in to the President and to myself all last night – when the situation with the state police having deserted the situation, and these men standing up there with courage and ability and great bravery – that was a very moving period in my life.

    — Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, October 1, 1962

    – Michael Aubrecht

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