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.