Something else was going on. The Ole Miss leadership, in an effort to scrub the school of any remotely offensive symbols, took it upon themselves to get rid of a beloved part of the Ole Miss tradition. Those who disagreed were called racists. Or racially insensitive.
Which led many Mississippians to wonder, was the word rebel next on the chopping block? The words Ole Miss? Or the crucifix itself, because it conjured up images of burning crosses?
Why did the then-chancellor of Ole Miss, Robert Khyat, do it? I am not a psychiatrist, but I suspect he wanted to prove his racial bona-fides to the greater academic world, and to outsiders in the media. He wanted to prove that Ole Miss had moved past its past, and was a part of the civilized world.
A few years later, the new Ole Miss chancellor, Dan Jones, announced on his first day at the helm that his leadership would be all about reconciliation. The school was not ranked in the top 100 in U. S. News and World Reports, and was ranked behind most SEC competitors in academics and sports. But his theme was reconciliation?
The theme should have been achievement. Or innovation. Something that sounded like the future, not the past.
During his first year as Chancellor, some fans at Ole Miss football games began to chant the words “the South shall rise again” after the band played the song “From Dixie With Love.” The chancellor’s response? He asked the school’s band director to modify the song to support efforts by the student government to censor its own student body. Why? Once again, it was done to heal racial wounds, and eliminate racial slights of any kind on campus.
What he thought he was teaching his kids was tolerance and sensitivity. But he was also teaching another value: censorship, and at a university no less. Which leads to the most virulent cancer any campus can imagine: self-censorship.
Moreover, the new chancellor’s sensitivity didn’t seem to cut in all directions. On the 50th anniversary of the real riots at Ole Miss back in 1962, the Ole Miss powers that be thought it a good idea to invite Harry Belafonte to be the keynote speaker. Belafonte has called iconic African-American figures like Colin Powell and Condeleeza Rice “house slaves” for doing the bidding of the slave master, George W. Bush. Where were Chancellor Jones and the Ole Miss sensitivity police when that decision was made?
The fact is, Ole Miss has come a long way since 1962. It has an African American student body of 16 percent, and there have been four African-American student-body presidents, including the current one, Kim Dandridge.
Things are not perfect in Oxford; they’re not perfect anywhere. But the desire to scrub Ole Miss of any possible remnants of racism projects not only a lack of confidence about the future of the university, but a lack of trust in the present. And it represents a false hope of perfecting human nature. No college chancellor can do that.