While some fans booed, others supported the six Ole Miss basketball players who knelt during the national anthem in protest of a pro-Confederate march only a five-minute walk from where they were playing.

In 1861 Mississippi seceded from the United States, and, amazingly, some folks still argue about why. There should be no argument. Mississippi stated the reason in its regrettable declaration of secession:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by the imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization….

The declaration went on and on, but you catch the drift. Mississippi seceded from the Union and fought the incredibly bloody war to perpetuate the practice of owning people – and, all too often, treating them like animals.

For reasons I cannot fathom, some people still celebrate that cause, still wave that Confederate battle flag. For no good reason, the state of Mississippi still incorporates the Confederate battle flag in our state flag in 2019.

Rick Cleveland

And that brings us to Saturday in Oxford when all those symbols were much on display as approximately 90 to 100 people marched in Oxford and at Ole Miss, in their own words, “to support Confederate history and veterans.”

The march started at the Oxford Square and ended at the Confederate statue in The Circle, near The Grove and just a few blocks from The Pavilion at Ole Miss. There, the Ole Miss basketball team was about to play Georgia. And, by now, you know what happened. Six of the Ole Miss basketball players knelt during the national anthem in protest of what was happening just a five-minute walk away.

Junior guard Breein Tyree, in a post-game press conference, explained why the players chose to do what they did.

“We are tired of these hate groups coming to our school and portraying our campus like it is actually our university having these hate groups,” Tyree said. “The majority of it was we saw one of our teammates doing it and we didn’t want him to be alone.”

Make no mistake about it: These college students knew what the marchers were supporting. They know what those symbols mean. They know why that war was fought. And many of them know their ancestors were slaves.

Reportedly, a few Ole Miss fans booed the kneeling. Far more supported the players. More importantly, Ole Miss coach, Kermit Davis Jr., and athletic director, Ross Bjork, both strongly supported the players, as well they should have.

Said Davis, a Mississippi native who has guided the Rebels to surprising 19-8 record in his first season as Ole Miss coach: “This was all about the hate groups that came to our community and tried to spread racism and bigotry. It’s created a lot of tension for our campus. I think our players made an emotional decision to show those people they’re not welcome on our campus. I respect our players’ freedom and ability to choose that.”

Bjork said a lot more, including, “(The players) see what’s happening on our campus and these people that come here and spill hate and bigotry and racism. We don’t want them on our campus. Our players stood up for that. It had nothing to do with the anthem. It had nothing to do with anything beyond, ‘You know what, we don’t want those people here. They’re protesting during our game and that’s not right because that’s not the Ole Miss that I know.’”

Not surprisingly, many have used social media to criticize Ole Miss players for kneeling and administrators for condoning the kneeling. At least as many have supported the players and the administrators.

Most importantly, the players know they have the support of the people who count most.

It was a sad, regrettable situation in Oxford Saturday when, 154 years after the Civil War ended, nearly 100 people gathered and marched to celebrate a lost cause meant to sustain an evil practice.

Ole Miss handled it as well as it could be handled.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.