Robert Khayat on Banning the Confederate Flag at Ole Miss

olemissThis is a very interesting interview with former Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat on the decision to ban the Confederate flag at Ole Miss.

The perception created by the Confederate flag was causing people to look on us in a negative way and remember us from 1962 (when James Meredith integrated Ole Miss and riots broke out on campus). It was being used by our opponents — not only in athletics, but in the general recruitment of students, as a negative to say that Ole Miss was still in the past. . . .

Most people want progress, but most people don’t like change. And that just became so apparent. The idea of changing something was traumatic for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. Some of it just had to do with good memories, of days when we were students and had winning football teams. But some of it had to do with hate and this feeling that existed between black and white people.

So we decided we had to disassociate ourselves from the flag. It’s often said, and it’s true, that we (Ole Miss) never had adopted the flag as an official symbol. . . . But it had been used since the ’40s, primarily associated with football. So it had just become part of the culture, and it took us about nine months to work through it. The volume of mail was remarkable. Most of it was threatening, some of it life-threatening to me, since I was symbolically the leader of this. And we worked our way through it and finally resolved it.

So by the end of that year, from 1997 to 1998, we went from a stadium full of flags to a stadium with no flags. And we did that by adopting a rule that you could not bring a pointed object into the stadium, whether it was an umbrella, a hot dog on a stick, or a flag on a stick. And we limited the size of flags and signs to something like 10 inches by 14 inches. So we were within the bounds of the First Amendment. . . .

Since that time, we are prospering at the university in ways that none of us could have imagined. And I think it had a significant impact on the way we were perceived not only in Mississippi, but nationally. The newspapers covering stories about Ole Miss ceased to begin their stories with the 1962 riot and with Ole Miss being an old-fashioned, 19th-century university. We were able to make that transition. . . .

Over time, people began to see that the benefit of not having that flag tied to our university, or vice versa, was far more valuable than the enjoyment that anybody received from waving that flag. It was measurably destructive to the university.

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15 comments… add one
  • Jeff Howell Oct 30, 2013 @ 13:05

    I graduated from Ole Miss in 1987. Gerald Turner, the chancellor at the time, was crucified for banning the Ole Miss cheerleaders from running onto the field with the Rebel flag. I thought it was good move. I teach a US history survey class. When I talk about the Civil Rights Movement, I show the official symbol of the Whit Citizens’ Council. It shows the US and Rebel Flags and has the phrase racial integrity. I try to show my students how the flag was used by people like George Wallace, and how a symbol can have dual meanings. I now use the Joe Paterno statue removal at Penn State to make the point. Once, the statue represented teamwork and integrity. Now it reminds people of a pedophile cover up. Similarly, the Rebel flag, despite all the cries of heritage, cannot escape the connotations of oppression and hate.

    • Jeff Howell Oct 30, 2013 @ 17:49

      Ole Miss has a good business school, law school, and the primary medical school in the state. Khayat helped the school move beyond its racist past.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Oct 30, 2013 @ 4:01

    I know people who have attended just about every major university in the US, but I’ve never met anyone who told me he or she went to Ole Miss. I have no knowledge of the school beyond the headlines of my youth. When people talk of tech innovation or educational reform I never think “University of Mississippi”.

    C’mon, seriously? I know about 25 people who graduated from Ole Miss. No doubt Ole Miss put itself through a terrible period of time, but today it is a great school. It’s engineering program is among the best in the country.

    • Pat Young Oct 30, 2013 @ 9:00

      Yes seriously.

      • Rob Baker Oct 30, 2013 @ 16:38

        They have one of the top Business MBAs in the country. I know several people that went there for literature as well, primarily because of the whole Faulkner “cult” that exists there.

        • Ken Noe Oct 31, 2013 @ 6:13

          The Center for the Study of Southern Culture is a model for interdisciplinary institutions. Excellent historical writing, and historians, come out of Ole Miss.

          • Patrick Young Nov 1, 2013 @ 16:33

            Since my point was to say that I know nothing about U. Miss other than what I read about it on those rare occasions when it gets into the national newspapers, I did not intend to say that because I don’t know anyone from that school, that it is a bad school. Just that what I do know, I know from the media. That’s all.

            I’m guessing Eric’s location accounts for his broader acquaintance with U. Miss grads.

            I did look up its MBA and Engineering programs on the US News rankings and found the MBA ranked 101st and the engineering unranked because it was lower than 145th. This is not to say those are bad programs, but they are perhaps not “top-ranked”, at least in that report.

  • eclecticdog Oct 29, 2013 @ 9:06

    Thank you Mr. Harris for the background and observations on “Ole Miss”.

    I’ll add a personal observation on the Washington Redskins controversy: its been around a while (at least for 30 years), but those Native Americans who follow a football team overwhelming support the Redskins (at least back in the 80s and 90s). I think it has to do with the logo — its much more dignified than its baseball counterparts. I never met a Native American that followed (or liked) the Atlanta Braves or the Cleveland Indians.

  • cagraham Oct 29, 2013 @ 7:00

    [Somewhat off-topic. Sorry.] I wish the jackass who owns my Washington football team would take a close look at Khayat’s reasons and methods. But he won’t, because he’s a jackass.

    • Andy Hall Oct 29, 2013 @ 7:44

      From today’s news:

      Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder will be meeting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss the ongoing controversy surrounding the name of his franchise, according to multiple reports.

      Citing confirmation from team and league sources, CSN Washington reported on Monday that the meeting will take place in New York on Tuesday. Such a Snyder-Goodell meeting would come one day before NFL officials are set to meet with representatives of the Oneida Indian Nation, who have been vocal opponents of the team’s name.

      An unnamed person described as having knowledge of the meeting told The Washington Post that Goodell is meeting with Snyder “to get more of an understanding from the club as to how it plans to address the issue.”

  • Paul Taylor Oct 29, 2013 @ 5:44

    As I’ve pondered before, I think the day will come (and perhaps not so far off) when the Confederate battle flag will exist only within indoor museum exhibits. Whether that comes to pass due to the evolving dictates of our culture or by government edict, e.g. Ole Miss, remains to be seen.

  • John Tucker Oct 29, 2013 @ 5:44

    As a friend posted and I quote…

    While the Confederate flag may not be intrinsically racist, it represents the entirety of southern history, much of which was racist. There is a connection to racism and the confederate flag. People have the right to be offended, but they should not assume the motives of the person owning the flag, because it means something different to each person.
    The Confederate flag has changed greatly since its creation and is likely to continue to do so. There may come a day when the blatantly racist meaning of the flag fades away along with the scars of integration. Until that day comes, the responsibility falls upon Confederate flag flyers to explain what it means to them. As for the rest of us, we should keep an open mind, about a symbol that has stood for so much to so many, be it right or wrong.

  • Patrick Young Oct 29, 2013 @ 5:18

    Interesting interview. Reminds me of the Atlanta tagline “Atlanta: The city too busy to hate, but if we get some time to ourselves, Watch Out.” Would have been nice if they got rid of the flag for reasons other than marketing.

    Growing up i remember thinking “What kind of an 18 year old would even choose to go to a place like Ole Miss?” Kids that i knew growing up saw college as a chance to escape into the future, while Miss seemed like a good place to go if you wanted some 1950s future. I imagined that a lot of those built up “traditions” there came from more progress minded students avoiding the school leaving an atavistic residue to attend.

    I know people who have attended just about every major university in the US, but I’ve never met anyone who told me he or she went to Ole Miss. I have no knowledge of the school beyond the headlines of my youth. When people talk of tech innovation or educational reform I never think “University of Mississippi”.

    I hope that students there understand the damage that was done to their job prospects by those who identified the school with backwards thinking.

    • Boyd Harris Oct 29, 2013 @ 7:57

      The institutional history at the University of Mississippi is exactly that, Patrick. The school was created in 1848 as an alternative to sending young, and impressionable, Mississippians to northern schools where they might encounter abolitionist ideas. During the Twentieth Century, the school has wrapped itself with the banner of Lost Cause, and specifically, the University Grays. A Confederate military unit comprised of students and professors, the University Grays are honored with a stained glass window and for a short while “Grays” was the name of the university’s sports teams. During the early Twentieth Century, the nickname “Ole Miss” was adopted as the name of the yearbook. The title has nothing to do with Mississippi’s name, but instead it was adopted in part to resemble the Lost Cause/paternalistic perception of slave loyalty. “Ole Miss” is the nickname given to the mistress of the plantation and adopted by the university a symbol of fidelity to the university (The Mississippian, May 13, 1939, “Ole Miss Takes Its Name From Darky Dialect, Not Abbreviation of State”). One of the other names that was not chosen was “Ole Marster.” Needless to say, this is not widely known. I myself had no idea until I arrived at the university in 2010 to begin my PhD studies. So you can see that the CBF is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the university.

      As for the damage done to student’s job prospects? It is not much damage. My observation of a lot of my students is that most of them only wish to go back to Itta Bena and be just like their parents. The sobriquet of “Rebels” is grossly inaccurate at this university, because I have never seen a large state university that was so conformist and conservative. There are very few political advocacy groups on campus, no tables by the Union asking you to fight against/for anything, and very little social or political dialogue among the undergraduate body. This is the product of the institutional history of the school. The university has cultivated the image of “moonlight and magnolias” which appeals to a specific group of mostly white southerners. The legacy of 1962 created an atmosphere on part of the administration to avoid at all costs any negative publicity, which means I live in a town where nothing bad is ever reported in local papers. If by chance something bad does happen, such as the “riot” during Obama’s reelection in 2012, then it is smoothed over by the administration’s public relations ( As for the 17% of the student body that is African-American? Most accept the apolitical atmosphere and do not make waves. One student in particular told me that her grandmother specifically told her not to get into trouble or make waves by saying: “Wasn’t too long ago when they would have killed any of us for trying to go there. You get your education and then get out.”

      Some of us are trying to change that, but honestly it is like trying to stop the ocean’s waves. I’ve enjoyed my time here in Oxford. I also believe that I have learned as much about southern history outside of the classroom as inside. I have never seen a place so imbued with history and equally so ambivalent to acknowledge or address it. As a scholar of memory this place utterly fascinates me, but at many times I abhor it.

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