Politics & Policy

Mississippi Yearning: Ole Miss ‘Race Riots’

On the campus of Ole Miss, November 6, 2012
Some in the South need to let go of its past.

It was a non-event that turned into a national one. A few students at Ole Miss, not happy with the election results on November 6, went outside and blew off some steam. One burned a paper Obama/Biden sign. Some said racial slurs were shouted. Others denied it. They surely acted poorly. It didn’t matter.

A tweeted photo of that burning sign set off rumors of a riot. One tweet prompted another, and a few hundred kids soon came out of their dorms to find no riot at all. Just some inebriated college kids acting up late at night, using foul language. Two were arrested for being drunk in public.

Not exactly national news, drunk kids acting like idiots. And on a college campus no less!

Not unless it’s the school in a state like Mississippi or Alabama or South Carolina. States that will forever be the land of racists and bigots in the minds of our nation’s image makers in New York and LA.

The media bloodhounds — CBS, ABC, the Huffington Post, and others — pounced. The Daily Beast ran this headline; “Anti-Obama riot at Ole Miss.” Here’s how they covered this non-story:

This wasn’t the America the president spoke about in his speechlast night. A 400-person election protest at the University of Mississippi featured some rioters yelling racial epithets.

#ad#That’s right. They called the kids rioters!

The only thing missing from this hyperbolic fake story were white hoods and a burning cross.

Yes, those kids behaved dreadfully. But when George Bush beat John Kerry in 2004, are we to believe that not a single student did anything just as stupid in Madison, Wis., or Berkeley, Calif.? Was there not a single student who burned a Bush/Cheney sign, called Bush a f***ing Nazi, or fired off an anti-Christian slur?

We’ll never know, because that’s not news to the mainstream media. That’s kids being kids.

Why the double standard? Because the media is perfectly comfortable perpetuating the last socially acceptable form of bigotry in America – regional bigotry. I know a lot about it. I live in Oxford, Miss., but I wasn’t born there. I spent the first thirty years of my life in New Jersey. But after a decade of traveling around America, I could think of no better place to raise a family than the town Faulkner called home. Oxford is that special.

When I told my friends up north about my move, they thought I’d lost my mind. Each time I returned north to visit, I tried my best to lighten things up with jokes. I assured them we have electricity, running water, cable TV, and even dentists down here. When I showed them pictures of my home, and told them how much it cost, and what my property-tax bill was, they were jealous. When I told them I live in a great neighborhood with some great people, and that Oxford has some fine places to eat and listen to bands, they believed me.

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But when I then told them that my girl goes to a great public school, one that has an African-American population that exceeds 30 percent, and that the kids get along, they were dumbfounded. As they should be, because my friends in Jersey don’t know what they don’t know.

Moreover, though they like to see themselves as racial progressives, they live in some of the most segregated schools in America. And they segregate not because the law compels them to. They segregate because they choose to.

And Mississippians are the racists?

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I don’t blame my Yankee friends for thinking the thoughts they think. The south has been a media caricature for decades. Think Sling Blade, Hee-Haw, and Mississippi Burning all rolled into one — and throw in The Help for seasoning — and you can’t blame anyone for thinking what they think about the South.

But I do blame some Mississippi leaders for feeding into this narrative. And overreacting to every charge of racism — true or false — with a zeal that often seems disproportionate to the charge. 

Senator Trent Lott learned that lesson the hard way. He spent decades in public life serving his constituents — white and black. But an innocuous statement during a celebration of the late senator Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday led to charges of racism. Rather than rebut those claims, he went on an apology tour. If Lott had been born in the North, the charge would never have been made, let alone stuck. Moreover, Lott would not have felt the need to declare his innocence the way so many southerners feel compelled to do when it comes to racism.

In the end, all of the apologizing in the world couldn’t call off the racial dogs; there was nothing he could say to expiate his non-sin. Lott resigned from his Senate leadership position because of the non-event, his reputation forever smeared by the false charge of racism.

The fact is, once you find yourself saying “I am not a racist,” all is lost.

I didn’t understand why Lott did what he did until I moved to Oxford in 2006. It didn’t take long for me to understand the people’s deep-seated anxiety over race, and Mississippi’s past. And the speed with which even white Mississippians — especially white liberal Mississippians — level the racism charge for merely thinking thoughts that are not racist at all, especially ideological ones like welfare reform or affirmative action. Or the worst of them all, states’ rights.

The history here is complicated. Slavery and segregation were a great stain on Mississippi’s heritage, and the South’s too. But some leaders at Ole Miss seem fixated on that past, and any possible offense to African Americans, real or imagined.

Their zero tolerance attitude for even perceived racial offense has done much good. It’s important to make students of all backgrounds feel welcome at any institution of higher learning. But such work can become counterproductive if taken to extremes. And especially if dictated from above through administrative decree.

A case in point: the old Ole Miss mascot, Colonel Reb, was routinely ranked one of America’s most loved mascots by ESPN. Colonel Reb was Ole Miss sports. But one day, without input from anyone, the powers that be at Ole Miss decided to shove the mascot into early retirement. Their rationale? The colonel conjured up images of plantation life that some African-American athletes found offensive. That, Ole Miss fans were told, was the reason Ole Miss was having a hard time winning in sports. Leadership wasn’t the problem, and piling up losses wasn’t the cause of their recruiting woes. The mascot was!

It didn’t seem credible to an outsider like me, this charge that the colonel offended black people. He looks a whole lot like the Kentucky Fried Chicken colonel, and that doesn’t stop my black friends from getting their fried chicken there. Or black people across America.

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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.

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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.

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The day after the non-riots that created the fake national story at Ole Miss, Chancellor Jones issued a grand statement about the incident. Students rallied at the Lyceum the next night holding candles to let the world know that their Ole Miss is not the Ole Miss of the past.

It was a beautiful gesture, but aren’t such vigils relegated to deaths? To real tragedy? And do you think the same media that described what happened as riots really cared about that follow-up event? Or the reputation of Ole Miss?

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Meanwhile, James Meredith, the man who had the courage to challenge segregationists back in 1962, was asked what he thought of the non-riots by a reporter with WJTV in Jackson, Mississippi. This was his reply:

It’s difficult for me to realize that 50 years after I went to Ole Miss, that black students could let themselves be distracted by such foolishness. We are already generally behind, and I would suspect that the average freshman at Ole Miss, their college entrance score is on average lower than your average white score, and if anyone doesn’t have time to be paying attention to such foolishness, it’s us.

That didn’t get much coverage by the media. Or the Ole Miss powers that be. Meredith wasn’t finished.

Whatever happens to the black race in Mississippi depends upon what we do, not what someone else does against us, or to help us. Our future is up to what we do, and I don’t think we have time to worry about anything else.

It is important to understand Mississippi’s past, and what happened in 1962. And yet I sometimes suspect that there are some at Ole Miss who don’t want to let go of the past, even as they talk about the future.

I recently corresponded with one of the thought leaders at Ole Miss’s Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, and asked why he and his students weren’t writing about some of the remarkable stories coming out of the South, and Mississippi.

I told him that he should do some reporting on the rise of the new South, because in the past decade, more Americans have headed south than to any other region in America. Wouldn’t that make a great grass roots/WPA-style oral-history project? And shouldn’t more Americans know this story?

Let’s tell the story of the reverse migration of African Americans to the South. Why are African Americans returning here in record numbers? How racist can the South be if African Americans are moving back? And, irony of ironies, moving to red states to escape the high taxes, dreadful public schools, and dangerous streets of liberal cities such as Chicago and Detroit?

Let’s talk about the factors that led a great industrial power, Toyota, to locate their capital, and their trust, in Tupelo, Miss. a few years ago.

Regrettably, many of the white liberals running academic institutions not only at Ole Miss, but at many other southern universities, are not working on such stories. I suspect that the reason they don’t is that the stories don’t comport with their ideology. Or the narrative of the South in which they’ve invested so much of their energy — the legacy of the civil-rights era.

“The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past yet,” William Faulkner once said. That is true. But not even someone as imaginative as Faulkner could have dreamed that a Japanese company would be making American cars in, of all places, Mississippi.

Yes, Mississippi still has some racists, just as New Jersey and Boston do. But it’s time for the leaders of Mississippi to move past “Mississippi Burning,” even if the media elite can’t. Because the people of Mississippi — black and white — already have.

Mississippi isn’t burning. It’s yearning. Yearning for academic leaders who can reflect and project the confidence of a truly talented and inspired people.

Yearning for academic leaders who know the worst of times are long behind us, and that like any other place in this great country, a few knuckleheads do not define a proud and rich culture.

Yearning for academic leaders who will make excellence their mantra, not political correctness, and who will create an environment that breeds creativity, not conformity.  

One thing is certain: The way to gain the respect of outsiders isn’t to burnish your racial bona-fides and beg them for absolution. And you don’t develop self respect in students  by coddling them in an academic cocoon and treating them like children.

Toyota believed in Mississippi enough to build a plant here.

Here’s hoping our academic leaders believe in Mississippi — and our fine young adults — only half as much. 

 Lee Habeeb is vice president of content at Salem Radio Network, which syndicates Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt.

Lee Habeeb — Lee Habeeb is an American talk-radio executive and producer. He has written columns for USA Today and the Washington Examiner, and is a columnist for Townhall.com and National Review.

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