Erin Pennington has a way with words.
After all, she started studying to be a professional communicator two years ago when she learned the basics of how quickly news and information is disseminated in the current age of social media. Other courses taught her how journalists use social media as a reporting tool and how to amplify stories to boost their reach and impact. This year, she’s learning about the ethics of social media in public relations, including the importance of exercising good judgment when representing both a personal brand and that of an organization.
Yet on September 19, Pennington, a junior broadcast journalism major at the University of Mississippi’s school of journalism and president of the student chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, could only muster one word when describing to her mother a Facebook post going around social media.
“Racist,” she texted with a screenshot of the post, adding an eye roll emoji for effect.
The post was written by Ed Meek, a public-relations industry veteran with deep ties to the university and Oxford and patron of the journalism school Pennington attends.
Meek’s post, which quickly spread across Mississippians’ social media channels and went viral across the web soon after, included photos of two African American women on the Square after the Ole Miss-Alabama football game.
“I hesitated until now to publish these pictures but I think it important that our community see what the camera is seeing at 2 a.m. after a ballgame… Enough, Oxford and Ole Miss leaders, get on top of this before it is too late. A 3 percent decline in enrollment is nothing compared to what we will see if this continues, and real estate values will plummet as will tax revenue. We all share in the responsibility to protect the values we hold dear that have made Oxford and Ole Miss known nationally,” Meek wrote on his Facebook page.
It’s not entirely clear what the “this” is Meek believes is the source of the problem. But no one really knows why enrollment at the school is on the decline. Meanwhile, the Oxford real estate market is still experiencing rapid growth, particularly among retirees, so it’s unlikely the city has seen a significant drop in property values. But whatever Meek meant, despite the fact that most of the hundreds of revelers that night dressed in their gameday finest were white, he placed the blame for problems of Ole Miss and Oxford squarely at the feet of two of the few black women out on the Square.
Given the university’s history with race relations, the uproar over the post was loud and the reaction from Ole Miss officials relatively swift.
Jeffrey Vitter, the university’s chancellor, posted a public condemnation of what he called an “unjustified racial overtone that is highly offensive” in the post. Ole Miss and Meek School alumni expressed disgust on their social networks. Reporters for national news outlets got to work and produced stories for Essence, the New York Times, National Public Radio, The Root and other outlets.
“I relinquish being over-sexualized, scapegoated and invalidated by anyone. I deserve to feel secure in my skin on this campus and in this town just as my counterparts do and I will continue to carry on as such,” one of the women pictured in Meek’s post, wrote in a searing column published in the Daily Mississippian, the student-run newspaper.
(Editor’s note: Even though the names of the women pictured in Meek’s post have been published online, Mississippi Today decided not to include their names in this story.)
Facing fierce and mounting public criticism, Meek deleted the post five hours after he first hit publish and issued an apology. After a series of journalism faculty meetings, Meek asked that his name be removed from the journalism school. That request required action from the Institutions of Higher Learning, which oversees the state-supported colleges and universities, which unanimously voted on October 18 to grant the request and strip Meek’s name from the building.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, does he think that of all of us?,” Pennington said. “Even the black journalism students attending the school named after him?’”
A hard line in the sand
As it turns out, Meek’s post was a much toned down version of what he thought and wanted the world to see.
Mississippi Today obtained audio from a September 20 meeting where the journalism faculty discussed the situation and gave an accounting of the sequence of events preceding Meek’s post and what followed in the days immediately after the controversy erupted.
Subsequent conversations with students and faculty members involved in discussions with university officials confirmed the details included on the recording.
On September 16, the morning after the Ole Miss-Alabama football game, Meek called Rachel West, the chief executive officer of HottyToddy.com, a news website based in Oxford that Meek founded in 2012, with a news tip and offered to send along a pair of photos to run with the story.
Meek, who was traveling the weekend of the Ole Miss-Alabama game, did not take the photos of the women, but received them from an acquaintance in Oxford. The story idea Meek passed along was that prostitution and fights were hurting Oxford’s character and long-term financial viability, implying that the women in the photos were sex workers.
On the faculty meeting recording, West, who is also a journalism faculty member, can be heard saying, referring to Meek: “He called me Sunday and said there is a problem with potential crime and fighting in Oxford … He has been on me since Sunday (September 16) to put this on Hotty Toddy, and I refused to do it.”
HottyToddy.com’s editor-in-chief, Anna Grace Usery, clarified: “The email (from Meek) referenced that there were these girls who were turning tricks,” a slang term for prostitution, “and he attached these two photos in his email. I, of course, looked at police records to see if, by any chance, there were any prostitution arrests, and there were not. So I drew a hard line in the sand.”
West, the CEO, told the faculty: “Ladies and gentlemen, this post was premeditated. I want you all to understand my observation is the following: That this was not a knee-jerk reaction. This was intended, and had been discussed, a while – well, 72 hours at least. And I told him not to do it, and I told him I certainly wasn’t going to be associated with any format that did it.”
‘Black problem in Oxford’
Meek did not return calls or emails to be interviewed for this story, and he has made no public statements about the incident since he apologized on Sept. 22.
But with a complete accounting of conversations that led to Meek’s decision to pull the trigger on the Facebook post, the faculty on September 21 unanimously voted to ask Meek to remove his name from the journalism school. He complied, launching an expedited process within faculty and administrative committees at the university to move the request along.
Will Norton, the dean of the journalism school and a longtime friend of Meek’s, initially appeared in a video where he is flanked by the school’s faculty, including two black faculty members at his side. “In every class we teach, we ask our faculty to make a statement that the school of journalism and new media is committed to diversity in the classroom,” Norton said in the video.
“This includes helping our students to develop a sensitivity to language and images that may create an appearance of or contain actual bias. It’s a foundational principle of good journalism. It’s our responsibility. We take it very seriously.”
In an interview with Mississippi Today, Norton, the dean of the journalism school since 2009, described the inner turmoil of balancing his responsibility to the students under his care and his loyalty to a dear a friend. (Disclosure: Norton is a founding and active Mississippi Today board member and donor.)
“I wanted to hear what the faculty was thinking. There was a lot of hurt and a lot of anger. You had to have a meeting like that so the next meeting could be more rational,” Norton said. “This is somebody I really admire and really respect. And I have faculty who were hurt by this person, and students who were hurt by the big mistake.”
Seyna Clark, a sophomore journalism major, was among them.
“When I first read Ed Meek’s post, I didn’t read that there was a crime problem in Oxford, but rather a black problem in Oxford,” Clark told Mississippi Today. “To me, it seems as if he is implying that black people are out of control and that we were the problem.”
A little after 24 hours after Meek posted on Facebook, Clark and dozens of her fellow students gathered at a journalism school-sponsored forum to discuss the incident. That evening, feelings of terror and disrespect were shared by black students. Students opened up about the racial climate on campus, and how university life for students of color is much different from life for white students.
Said Clark: “It’s uncomfortable as a Black Muslim woman to go to a school that takes pride in calling themselves the Rebels or Ole Miss. Let’s not pretend to act like we don’t know the meanings behind these symbols and names.”
Ole Miss in context
Meek’s own association with University of Mississippi started with its most famous racial drama.
In 1962, as federal troops fought the crowd of white Mississippians angry about a black Air Force veteran named James Meredith enrolling in the university, Meek, then a young student photographer, documented the riot that left two people dead on campus.
In the weeks that followed, Meek took several now iconic photos of Meredith, many of which were later published in his 2015 photo book called “Riot.” Meek also became a “big man on campus as Campus Cutie Editor,” which involved taking risque photos of white coeds, he wrote for a HottyToddy.com column published in January 2018.
In the years that followed Ole Miss’s integration, Meek became the public relations director for the university, which, in an ironic twist, involved repairing the image of the university that his photojournalism was integral to forging in the wake of the 1962 riot.
As the years wore on, Meek, a self-proclaimed “Mississippi redneck from Charleston,” regularly spoke of the formative qualities of that time.
“I came to Ole Miss from Charleston,” Meek said in an interview with Mississippi Public Broadcasting in 2016. “I brought with me many of the prejudices we all had at that time. I denied that for many years. It wasn’t politically smart to do so, and I admit it now.
“All of us had certain thoughts. It was a different era. It was the era of Miss Americas, the era of fun and festivities. And then this serious event comes along and changes the course of history for me as I spent the rest of my career dealing with these issues and trying to reshape the image of the University of Mississippi.”
The Oxford of Meek’s coming of age is a distant memory of today’s Oxford. When he was an undergraduate at the University of Mississippi in 1960, vehicle traffic on the sleepy Square flowed two ways. Today, police close portions of the Square’s roadways to accommodate the shoulder-to-shoulder, often well-stewed, foot traffic.
Oxford had 5,283 residents in 1960. The town’s population at the most recent counting approaches 25,000. The University of Mississippi had just over 4,000 students in 1960; today it’s home to almost 24,000, although that number, as Meek pointed out, is declining.
In the 1960s, the town’s few African American residents were not allowed in shops, bars or restaurants on the Square. Older African American Oxonians remember that some businesses would not even allow black people to stand under their awnings during rainstorms.
Since 1962, the campus has repeatedly been a flashpoint for racial tension as well as sexual harassment of women and insensitivity toward LGBTQ people, each of them drawing widespread media coverage.
In 2015, members of the Ku Klux Klan visited campus to protest a student-led initiative to get the school to stop flying the state flag, which is the last in nation containing the Confederate battle emblem. In 2014, two white students placed a noose and an old Georgia state flag showing the Confederate battle emblem on the Meredith statue.
When President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, a young white man burned an Obama/Biden campaign sign as several other white men looked on. That image, too, circulated far and wide as did false rumors that a race riot was underway on the campus.
Ole Miss is also pockmarked with Confederate symbols, including a towering monument that is one of the first things visitors see when they arrive on the rolling campus. Several buildings on campus are named after Confederate sympathizers. The university is home to a Confederate cemetery, where heritage groups meet annually to commemorate the Lost Cause. Up until 2016, the university’s marching band called “The Pride of the South” routinely played the song “Dixie,” the Confederate Army’s battle cry.
Despite the school ridding itself of its Colonel Reb mascot in 2003, the nickname for its athletic teams remains the “Rebels,” an homage to the Confederate soldiers in the Civil War, which the state of Mississippi joined to preserve slavery. And even the school’s nickname harks back to how slaves addressed plantation mistresses: Ol’ Miss.
In March 2018, the university unveiled six markers contextualizing its history.
Plaques for Barnard Observatory, Lamar Hall, Longstreet Hall and George Hall were introduced, as was a marker recognizing the university’s enslaved laborers in the construction of Barnard Observatory, the Old Chapel (now Croft), the Lyceum and Hilgard Cut.
Another plaque to be placed at the stained-glass Tiffany windows in Ventress Hall recognizes the University Greys, a Civil War company of primarily university students that suffered 100 percent casualties – killed, wounded or captured.
The presentation followed months of study by the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context.
Nevertheless, each racist episode at the university that creeps into the public eye salts old wounds for the campus’s black community.
“We constantly have to reassure our family that it’s OK and pretend like it’s safe,” Clark said. “It’s uncomfortable going to classes and being one of the only black student in class. It’s traumatizing walking down hallways or sitting in the library and seeing white students wear Confederate flags or Colonel Reb on their hats and T-shirts and Trump ‘Make America Great’ stickers on their laptops. They’re sending a real clear message.”
A powerful statement
For Meek, an irony of the moment lies in his early advocacy for what he called new media. When most people still got most of their news from print newspapers and television, new media was a term coined in the aughts to describe news created in digital spaces including the internet and social media – the very tools that enabled millions of people to see, and be horrified by, his online musings in real time.
In fact, the Ole Miss journalism school probably wouldn’t exist if not for Meek’s close involvement. In 2008, he donated $5.3 million to create the Meek School of Journalism and New Media. The latter part of the school’s name was well thought out — journalism students in the age of the internet and social media should refine the skills necessary to survive in an industry shifting rapidly toward the web, Meek and school officials reasoned at the time.
For years, Meek preached to anyone who would listen the value of teaching digital skills so students could thrive in a changing industry. He took the mission so seriously that he founded the news website HottyToddy.com, where students could sharpen their skills.
“He wanted this (HottyToddy.com) to be a platform for the students to use and learn from,” Kate Wallace, Meek’s granddaughter and the site’s former managing editor, said in 2014.
What comes next for Mississippi’s only journalism school, now that Meek’s name is officially removed from it, is not clear.
While overall enrollment at four-year schools is on the decline, fewer African Americans are choosing the state’s flagship institution and the school of journalism.
A 2016-2017 accreditation report states African Americans made up 9.4 percent of journalism enrollment during the 2015-2016 school year compared to the university’s African American enrollment of 13.5 percent.
Both numbers were a decline from the previous year’s black enrollment of 10.8 percent and 14.4 percent, for the journalism school and university as a whole, respectively — a trend that the journalism school’s diversity committee met about just two days before Meek’s Sept. 19 Facebook post.
“A strong appeal to minorities is the relatively low out-of-state tuition rate. A negative point for recruiting students is parents of potential students recall the university’s violent civil rights history in the 1960s,” members of the accreditation team wrote on the report.
“However, observations have shown that black middle-class parents have begun to recognize that the Ole Miss of the past is not the Ole Miss of today. For example, the university was in the news nationally for eliminating the song “Dixie” from football games. This is a place of contradictions for some: a statue of a Confederate soldier is only a short distance on campus from the statue commemorating James Meredith.”
One idea to demonstrate that Ole Miss remains welcoming to students of color is gaining steam, however.
More than 100 faculty members on campus, including several journalism faculty members, signed a petition to rename the school for Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who was born into slavery in nearby Holly Springs and became a pioneer of investigative and data journalism through dogged reporting of lynchings in the South. Wells-Barnett’s great granddaughter, Michelle Duster, has publicly supported the suggestion.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative reporter with New York Times Magazine and co-founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, which aims to grow the ranks of journalists of color in newsrooms, said renaming the school for Wells-Barnett would send a powerful message.
“Let’s remember, outside of her reporting on lynching and outside of her being an innovator in the field of investigative journalism and data reporting, she helped to co-found the NAACP. She was a suffragist. She did this at a time when black people were losing their rights, when Reconstruction was coming to an end. This woman persevered and fearlessly told the story black people dying through extrajudicial violence,” Hannah-Jones, who has family ties to Greenwood, told Mississippi Today.
“At a place like Ole Miss, to have one of the most prominent buildings named after a black woman would say a lot about where that university and the state of Mississippi is, and can be, today.”
R.L. Nave contributed reporting.