As debate continues to rage across Southern states concerning whether Confederate symbols should be displayed in public spaces, some student leaders at the University of Mississippi say that the best way to settle the discussions long-associated with the school is through allowing the student body to decide their own fates in referendums.
Since 2003, Ole Miss has dropped Colonel Reb (a mascot associated with the Old South), stopped the marching band from playing traditional fight songs such as “From Dixie with Love” and “Dixie” at sporting events, and renamed Confederate Drive to Chapel Lane.
Along with the Magnolia State’s eight other public universities, the “Flagship University” ceased flying the Mississippi flag in October of 2015. Mississippi’s flag is the only current U.S. state banner that includes the Confederate battle flag’s saltire.
Debates among students over the place of controversial symbols at the university have been vitriolic.
In March, during the Associated Student Body (ASB) election campaign, a large wooden sign belonging to Dylan Wood that included an image of a Mississippi flag was pushed over and defaced with paint by a student, who was later arrested in April in connection with the vandalism.
Wood, a junior from Tupelo and now ASB secretary, is a vocal supporter of the state flag and traditional symbols of the University. University Police arrested Wood on an alcohol charge earlier during the school year at a football game after he reportedly refused to hand over a Mississippi flag, which he snuck into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Wood said he has been engaged in some “respectful dialogue” with students that do not share his views, however, in addition to his arrest and the vandalism of his property, he has endured occasional verbal torment for his views, and has even been threatened.
“I get sly comments, ‘There goes that racist kid,’ ‘There goes the flag guy…’ I do get calls from anonymous numbers threatening to kick my tail, or something like that, but that’s about it,” Wood said.
Wood, as well as other students, disagrees that the symbols are “racist,” and they assert that their positions are mainstream among the student body.
If a majority of people are offended, take them away, but we don’t know because the school won’t let them on the ballot,” said Wess Helton, student president of the Colonel Reb Foundation on campus, a club which strives to reinstate the school’s old mascot.
Helton, a sophomore in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College and a native of Lexington, South Carolina, said that many of the historical symbols actually best represent the culture of the university: a culture that he says attracted him and many other like-minded students to the institution.
“Taking away a lot of the unique traditions makes the university another generic public school,” Helton said.
Changing The Campus
In 2010, a student referendum to choose a new character to represent the university led to the “Rebel Black Bear” becoming the school’s mascot. Absent from the options, however, was the choice to keep the school’s Colonel Reb mascot.
In 2015, the ASB Senate voted to remove the state flag on campus, but a student-wide referendum was not held on the issue. The student body was also not consulted on their approval of any of the school’s administrative decisions regarding the controversial symbols around campus, including the work done by the Committee for Contextualization.
In an email exchange about the subject, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Brandi Hephner LaBanc wrote, “Student votes are appropriate in certain circumstances, but some decisions are guided by students’ voices and many other constituents (e.g., faculty, staff, etc.).”
Regarding the current political climate on campus, Hephner LaBanc also shared, “I am deeply worried about the lack of civility and respect that individuals seem to hold for others.
“I want Ole Miss students to learn how to disagree and debate civilly. We don’t have to agree on issues (political, social or otherwise), but we have to be willing to talk—and that includes listening.”
Helton said that those who support the Mississippi state flag returning to campus and members of the Colonel Reb Foundation are not advocates of racism or white nationalism. Helton added that his political allies consist of a very diverse group, which includes first and second generation Americans as well as people of many races and creeds.
“I’ve been called a greasy white boy. I’ve been compared to the Charleston shooter,” Helton said. Our vice-president [of the Colonel Reb Foundation] is black. He slept on the couch in my room the other night. And, I’m racist?”
Blair Smith, an African-American junior from Jacksonville, Florida, who is very active and visible in both the Colonel Reb and State Flag foundations said that none of the questionable symbols are inherently offensive to him “as a black man.” He also said that members of these organizations are not racists, and that many of them are some of his best friends.
Smith claims that the Mississippi flag, Colonel Reb, Dixie and other traditions have been “made issues by white liberals,” especially those who are involved in the media. Smith was initially reluctant to be interviewed, saying that in the past, members of the student media have not been “very objective or kind” toward people that celebrate the state’s Confederate heritage.
“The coverage has not been great from ‘The Daily Mississippian.’ We’ve been told that we dehumanize other students. We’ve been compared to the Ku Klux Klan,” Smith said. “We’ve not conducted violence toward anyone.”
According to Helton, Smith and Wood, when given the chance to debate with students with differing viewpoints, all three are often able to remain “respectful.” What they want now is a chance for a campus-wide debate that ends in a student vote.
In conversation with University officials, including the Division of Student Affairs, Wood said he has been told that a student-wide referendum on a symbol, like Colonel Reb or the state flag, is “not part of the University’s future direction.”
“The students want the University the way it was in the ’80s and the ’90s,” Wood said. “If we put it to a vote tomorrow, I’d bet everything I had that we could bring back Colonel Reb, Dixie and the state flag.”