Protesters supporting Confederate monuments gather by the Confederate statue at the Square in Oxford Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019.

OXFORD — The home of the University of Mississippi was again a flashpoint for a national dialogue about race as about 90 people came, in their words, to “support Confederate history and veterans” on Saturday.

They were met by nearly equal sized groups of counter protesters; later Ole Miss basketball players expressed their opposition to the Confederate group’s presence by kneeling during the National Anthem.

“We are tired of these hate groups coming to our school and portraying our campus like it is our actual university having these hate groups,” junior guard Breein Tyree said during a post-game press conference. “The majority of it was we saw one of our teammates doing it and we didn’t want him to be alone.”

Confederate 901, a Memphis based neo-Confederate group that describes themselves as a “group of patriots who stand up for the constitution and freedom,” organized the rally. They were joined by the Hiwaymen, a group whose Facebook page description says only that they “do Patriot Shit.”

The march began at the Square in downtown Oxford near the Confederate statue and ended at the Circle, where another monument honoring the unknown named Confederate soldier also stands.

A Facebook page for the event states that the rally’s purpose was to, “draw a line in the sand” over the actions the university has taken over the past two decades to remove or contextualize the traditions and monuments that glorified the Confederacy. These include:

Passions were high among the protesters

• In 1997, amid a decline in enrollment, then Chancellor Robert Khayat led the university in disassociating from the Confederate flag. “We had to get rid of the flag,” Kyahat said in a previous interview with Mississippi Today. “It was killing [enrollment]. I knew we had to get rid of the flag, and we went through nine months of hell and criticism and people marching and threatening my life [during the process of getting rid of it].

• In 2010, Ole Miss retired its mascot Colonel Reb and later brought in the Black Bear as its replacement.

• In 2015, the university removed the state flag – which bears the Confederate emblem – from campus.

• In 2016, The University’s Athletic Department asked the band to stop playing “Dixie,” which was considered the Confederacy’s unofficial anthem.

• In 2018 the University of Mississippi introduced contextualization plaques which acknowledged slave labor used to construct university buildings, and provided information about harmful actions taken against African-Americans by some of the antebellum-era men the buildings are named for.

“Now the same group that has been crying on and on still is not satisfied. THEY ARE DEMANDING THE CONFEDERATE STATUE BE TORN DOWN!! … Enough is enough!!” the group’s Facebook event reads.

One of the leaders of the group, who refused to provide his name because he said he gets death threats, said that they gathered in Oxford because, “a Communist group of students … protested the Confederate monument on campus and demanded that it be tore down. So we responded to show our support for the statue.”

The group that he’s referring to is Student Against Social Injustice. He admitted that he didn’t know anything about the group’s ideologies but that, “90 percent of the time the opposition is a bunch of Communists.”

He also said that out of all of their protesters, about 10 or 20 were from Oxford.

On Friday, Students Against Social Injustice (SASI) hosted a “Students over Statues” march, which called for the removal of the Confederate monument. The day before Ole Miss students protested the Confederate monument by holding a silent Black History Month march.

Although an official anti-Confederate counter rally was canceled due to inclement weather and safety concerns, about 80 or so people still showed up to protest the Confederate protesters.

“I’m a part of the community. I have a daughter here, I have a home here and I am here to represent that Oxford is more than what these individuals came to represent,” said Alexandria White.

She commented on the common “heritage over hate” narrative that Confederate enthusiasts put forward saying, “Your heritage is embedded in oppressing people that look like me. They’re always talking about, ‘This is heritage, take pride in it.’ You can take pride, but things like these statues belong in museums. They belong somewhere not at the forefront.”

Cristen Hemmins, another Oxford native, said she didn’t intend to protest today but when she drove by the square and saw, “all those folks there in my city square with their flags, it was hard not to do something,” she said.

The neo-Confederates’ presence in Oxford made residents feel bad, worried and scared, she said. “It especially makes my heart hurt for my black friends because it’s very threatening to them and they (the Confederate enthusiasts) want it to be threatening.” She also noted that today proves the point that such Confederate monuments are a “lightning bolt for hate and discord,” and suggested that the monuments be moved to the Confederate cemetery where they are not a main focal point in town and on campus.

When the groups got to campus everyone had to go through a metal detector before entering and then were confined from each other behind barricades with about 200 feet of green space between them. Law enforcement stood in the space that separated them while each side yelled chants and responses. Students, protesters, community members and some people from outside of Oxford stood on the counter protesting side.

This type of protest falls in line with the dozens of others that have swept the nation during the past few years, pitting Confederate enthusiasts against those who see the Confederacy as emblematic of racism, oppression, slavery, white supremacy and hate.

While the scope of such protests have ranged from insignificant to demanding national attention, the deadliest and perhaps most well known one happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, when the city council voted to re-name two parks that were named for Confederate generals and remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Jarvis Benson, president of the Black Student Union at the University of Mississippi said that African-American students felt unsafe knowing the Confederate protest was coming to their campus.

“It’s been inspiring to see that a lot of students have come together and have really made an effort to say in solidarity that we do not endorse those ideologies,” he added. “We’re trying to move forward as a student body.”

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.