The decision yesterday to remove the state flag from the campus of the University of Mississippi followed votes by the Student and Faculty Senates. In the case of the University of Southern Mississippi all it took was a decision by President Rodney D. Bennett earlier this morning. Here is his statement:
I have chosen to raise American flags on all University of Southern Mississippi flagpoles to remind the University community of what unites us. We have all chosen to work, study and live in a country in which debates like those around the state flag of Mississippi can take place and ideas can be civilly expressed and advanced. While I love the state of Mississippi, there is passionate disagreement about the current state flag on our campuses and in our communities. I am looking forward to a time when this debate is resolved and USM raises a state flag that unites us.
I can’t help but think that this is a rather hollow statement on the part of the president. Mississippi’s current state flag is certainly controversial and divisive but the president can’t seem to bring himself to state why. It is possible that as USM’s first black president, Bennett wanted to avoid injecting race into this issue, but, of course, that is exactly what this is about. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be laid out in such explicit terms, but I believe more is required given the absence of any vote by the student senate or campus debate that preceded the president’s decision in Oxford.
If you can’t state openly what this controversy is about on a college campus, where can you?
Update: University of Southern Mississippi removed the state flag from campus earlier today.
On July 20, 2015 the Confederate battle flag was lowered from the statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina following an order issued by Governor Nikki Haley. Regardless of which side you were on many believed that the move was purely political to help with her own national ambitions. Questions surrounding the governor’s motivation make it difficult to place the decision within a broader historical context that stretches back to 1962 when the Confederate flag was first raised atop the statehouse. On the other hand, the order this morning at the University of Mississippi to remove the state flag (which includes a Confederate flag in its design) from campus must be acknowledged as a crucial moment in that institution’s long and complex relationship with the flag.
According to historian John Coski the University of Mississippi adopted the flag “as an all-but-official school symbol” in the early 1950s and was embraced “with distinctly political undertones” coinciding with the rise of the Dixiecrat Party. The waving of Confederate flags, the singing of “Dixie” and the presence of the Colonel Reb mascot became staples of Ole Miss football games. During the height of the Civil Rights Movement the flag was picked up by students as their symbol of resistance against school integration. [click to continue…]
This morning the University of Mississippi’s campus police took down the state flag. It will be moved, along with petitions for its removal by students and faculty, to the university’s archive. This comes after both students and faculty voted overwhelmingly that the presence of the Confederate battle flag (even on the state flag) has no place on campus.
Interim Chancellor Morris Stocks first joined other state and university leaders calling for a change in the state flag in a statement last June. “The University of Mississippi community came to the realization years ago that the Confederate battle flag did not represent many of our core values, such as civility and respect for others,” Stocks said. “Since that time, we have become a stronger and better university. We join other leaders in our state who are calling for a change in the state flag.”
Stocks noted that the decision to no longer fly the state flag was not an easy one, adding that the flag means different things to different people. “As Mississippi’s flagship university, we have a deep love and respect for our state,” Morris said. “Because the flag remains Mississippi’s official banner, this was a hard decision. I understand the flag represents tradition and honor to some. But to others, the flag means that some members of the Ole Miss family are not welcomed or valued. That is why the university faculty, staff and leadership have united behind this student-led initiative.”
Stocks noted that other public universities and local governments have already taken this step, and he continues to encourage state leaders to create a new flag. “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.”
Whether this decision by Mississippi’s flagship university has any impact on the broader discussion about the state flag has yet to be seen, but this is a significant step for Ole Miss and one that the community can take pride in. It’s significant because it offers us some sense of the direction that the next generation of Mississippians will go in dealing with their Confederate past.
I am just about finished reading Tiya Miles’s new book, Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era, published by UNC Press. Miles explores the current craze and popularity of ghost stories at historic sites, specifically those involving slaves in places like Savannah and New Orleans. Here is a short passage that beautifully captures the central theme of the book:
In crafting and hearing stories of haunting, we conjure up and simultaneously contain the collective memories that threaten us. Ghost stories index disturbing historical happenings that have often been excluded from conscious social memory, but they also limit the full recognition of those very happenings. Because modern culture dismisses the possibility of ghosts (even while many people hold personal faith in the reality of haunting), ghost stories are taken lightly, in jest, and are viewed as primitive or playful. Revelations of historical import embedded in ghost stories are therefore dismissed as unreal. Ghost stories as a form of historical narrative therefore do double work: they call to mind disturbing historical knowledge that we feel compelled to face, but they also contain the threat of that knowledge by marking it as unbelievable. This process of pushing back and calling forth a memory might be described as “unsuccessful repression” in psychoanalytical literary and cultural studies. Literature scholar Renee Bergland explains the understanding of hauntings as repression in this way: “The entire dynamic of ghosts and hauntings, as we understand it today, is a dynamic of unsuccessful repression. Ghosts are things that we try to bury, but that refuse to stay buried. They are our fears and our horrors, disembodied, but made inescapable by their very bodilessness.” Just as hauntings are about the return of the past, or time “out of joint,” ghost stories are a controlled cultural medium for recognizing trouble in that past, for acknowledging the complexities and injustices of history that haunt the periphery of public life and leave a lingering imprint on social relations. (pp. 15-16)
At first I had trouble understanding why Miles is interested in ghosts, but having recently read her previous book, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, it occurred to me that there is a great deal of overlap between ghost stories about slavery at historical sites and the challenges that public historians face in interpreting this history for the general public. The book is well worth your time and is a quick read.
Like many of you I have been following the growing number of public schools that have had to respond to students bringing Confederate flags onto school grounds. This is taking place throughout the country and not just in the South. I’ve read stories of schools as far north as New Hampshire and Minnesota that are currently dealing with this issue. Even more interesting are those Northern schools with deeper ties to Confederate heritage that go back to the 1960s. In my latest column at The Daily Beast I briefly explore two of those schools, one in Walpole, Massachusetts and the other in South Burlington, Vermont. [click to continue…]