A federal hate crime indictment against a Georgia man for placing a noose around the neck of the James Meredith civil rights statue at the University of Mississippi may bring some relief to the Ole Miss community, but not to the famous integrationist depicted strolling across campus.
Two years before Graeme Harris of Alpharetta, Ga., allegedly hung a noose and draped a Confederate flag on the James Meredith statute, Mr. Meredith himself – who, accompanied by armed national guardsmen, integrated the school in 1962 – called for the University of Mississippi to not only destroy his statue, but have it “ground into dust.”
Indeed, if Mr. Harris, as the US Department of Justice alleges, hated the statue and what it represented, Mr. Meredith hated it even more, calling the “graven image” a “supplicant” to a system of white supremacy that he believes exists.
The Meredith statue was introduced in 2006 as a symbol of racial reconciliation for a state that continues to struggle with how to untether from a violently racist past. But sitting at a ceremony where he, himself, was not given time to speak, Meredith, in his 2012 autobiography, recalls thinking that “the only racial reconciliation that ever occurred in America was the reconciliation between white southerners and white northerners after the Civil War.”
To be sure, Meredith is a rebel to the bone, still engaging in unapologetic straight talk in a 50-year-old debate that started when he enrolled on Oct. 1, 1962. He acknowledged his thorn-in-the-side role in his book, where he wrote that he was concerned about being arrested at the statue unveiling ceremony in 2006 after he handed out copies of a speech that he wasn't given enough time to deliver.
“I guess they figured they’d better not try to handcuff me, so I got away with [handing the speech out],” he wrote.
Given such background, Meredith’s unmet demand that Ole Miss tear the statue down is at least part of a stubborn and insidious dynamic in America’s race debate, especially amid recent revelations of racist chants at fraternities in Oklahoma and elsewhere. Unable to tamp down a hateful legacy, Meredith has complained, Mississippians and many other American people and institutions are largely content to simply paper over the state’s sins without fundamental reform.
Mr. Meredith saw more evidence of that Friday, calling it shameful that it took the federal government, not Mississippi prosecutors, to file hate crime charges against Harris. Mississippi prosecutors said their hands were tied, since the state’s criminal statutes require that actual damage be inflicted. Technically, the statue wasn’t harmed by the racist stunt.
The vandalism, however, sparked shock and outrage in the Ole Miss university community, which held a reconciliation rally after the vandalism was discovered.
Such reactions to racist acts acknowledge that Mississippi has begun to change in real ways. It was a black Mississippi judge who earlier this year sentenced a group of white men and women for leading a series of attacks on blacks in Jackson, Miss., which ended with a black man getting killed.
For its part, Ole Miss is currently debating whether to officially drop its “Ole Miss” moniker because of its cultural ties to the Jim Crow era. Ole Miss is also embroiled in a debate on college campuses across the South over how to deal with symbols of the segregationist past.
But in his 2012 autobiography, Meredith, now in his 80s, fairly fumed as he recalled the 2006 ceremony where luminaries like Rep. John Lewis and actor Morgan Freeman spoke of a major moment in racial reconciliation, but where Meredith wasn’t given enough time to speak. He also complained about a tortured process to erect the monument, alleging that the university administration, worried about public perceptions, changed the plans late in the game, including taking the word “fear” out of one stanza.
Such fractured debates prove, at least to Meredith, that the past dies hard in Mississippi, a place where gentility may be a thin veneer and tradition often trumps progress.
At the 2006 statue unveiling ceremony, Mr. Lewis, the famous civil rights leader, declared, “Today we can celebrate a new day, a new beginning, the birth of a new South and a new America that is more free, more fair, and more just than ever before!”
“I had no idea what he was talking about,” Meredith wrote in his autobiography, “A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America.”