The University of Mississippi’s decision to remove the state flag – which depicts the Confederate battle emblem – from its campus in Oxford has once more put a spotlight on the nationwide debate over how the Confederacy should be portrayed in US history.
Broadly, the move at Ole Miss speaks to Americans’ “rapidly evolving moral and intellectual views of the South's complicated past,” as the Monitor reported in June. Yet it’s actually been for the past decade or so that attitudes at the state’s flagship university have been shifting.
That this institution in particular – one with deep ties to the region’s Confederate roots – has now taken down the state flag suggests that the action could resonate through Mississippi as it continues to assess its past.
“We threw a big rock into a lake, and now we get to see the ripples,” says Professor John Bruce, chair of the university’s political science department. “And how the ripples behave depends on what else is happening in the water.”
University police took down the flag Monday following the adoption of a student-led resolution to pull the banner from campus. The student senate voted last Tuesday to remove the flag, and the faculty senate and other campus organizations followed with similar recommendations.
“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,” said Morris Stocks, the school’s interim chancellor, in a statement. “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.”
Debate over Confederate symbols rekindled across the nation – but particularly in the South – in the wake of the mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., in June. The gunman was a white supremacist who had displayed Confederate flags in photos.
The discourse has continued, with one side insisting the Confederacy and its symbols are a vital part of the country’s history and the other decrying them as relics of a racist past.
At Ole Miss, Professor Bruce says, it’s a conversation that has been going on for decades.
“You can’t walk across this campus without coming across symbols of the past,” he says, noting the campus has a statue of a Confederate soldier, a Confederate cemetery, and buildings named after politicians who supported segregation – in addition to being the venue of deadly riots in 1962, after James Meredith became the first black student to be enrolled in the university.
“Race is woven through the fabric of this place, for better or for worse,” he adds. “We are going to talk about race.”
As attitudes have begun to shift at the school in recent years, Bruce says, the response statewide has been, for the most part, positive. In 1998, the university effectively prevented the Confederate battle flag from being waved at games by banning pointed objects of any kind in the school’s stadium and limiting the size of banners and signs.
As former Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat told AL.com in 2013: “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.”
Today, the university’s sports teams are still called the Rebels, although the school in 2010 replaced the Colonel Reb mascot with a black bear. Also, there was an online petition that called to keep the state flag raised on campus.
"In order to live in a free society, the possibility to be offended will occasionally occur," the petition read. "Removing symbols, flags, and monuments will do nothing to change the way people feel in their hearts."
Still, the resolution to remove the flag won by a landslide.
“I think the overall mood has changed,” Bruce says. “We’ve come a long way toward being more inclusive. Given the history of our school – which we carry around like baggage – we’ve come a long way.”
What impact the university’s action will have on the rest of the state depends in large part on how lawmakers, who are divided on the issue, respond, he adds. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has previously warned state lawmakers not to override a 2001 referendum in which residents overwhelmingly voted to keep the flag’s current design.
Yet Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, a major Republican figure in the state, has taken a position against the flag, which he called “a point of offense that needs to be removed.”
How other schools react to Ole Miss’s move will also matter, Bruce says.
“If they start doing something, then we know we’ve changed the conversation,” he says.