OXFORD — Inside a third-floor study room overlooking the Grove at the University of Mississippi, a half dozen students gather around a boardroom table fashioned out of two smaller tables to finalize their plan.
One of them, John Chappell, locks the door, pulls a stack of documents from a backpack and spreads them out on the table in front of his colleagues and a reporter in the Croft Institute for International Studies.
“This is it,” Chappell said. “This is what we’ve been working on.”
The documents — printouts of state laws, attorney general’s opinions and court rulings — provide the foundation of a sophisticated strategy the students formed over the course of two months.
Several nights a week since mid-January, this room served as the war room for the students as they developed the strategy that would impress even those in smoky back rooms where Jackson political brokers wheel and deal. Their ultimate goal: move the Confederate statue from the heart of campus to an on-campus cemetery, less visible to visitors and students, where hundreds of Confederate Army soldiers are buried.
But first, working for weeks inside the Croft room about 30 yards from the monument, they had to craft the legal and policy framework to do so.
Such an undertaking at the University of Mississippi — a place steeped in Confederate iconography, plagued by a racially violent history and ongoing racist aggressions, and endowed by wealthy and powerful white alumni who have resisted efforts to rid the school of its troubling symbolism — is deeply complicated.
The 30-foot monument, which the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected in 1906, greets visitors at the university’s main entrance as the most visible ode to the Lost Cause.
As the national debate rages about the endurance of these monuments in an increasingly diverse South, conversations in Oxford remained hushed until late last year when a student group, Students Against Social Injustice, began pushing the university to remove the statue.
The tension crescendoed on Feb. 23 when dozens of neo-Confederates from Mississippi and other states journeyed here to defend the monument and support many of the values for which the Confederacy stood. As the protests carried on near the monument, eight black players on the Ole Miss basketball team kneeled in protest during the national anthem at the basketball arena across campus.
“I’ve seen these monuments my whole life,” said Jarvis Benson, a senior from Grenada and president of the Black Student Union who was among the six students working to move the monument.
“I think these considerations go beyond the statue itself. It stands at the center of campus, in front of the administrative building. It perpetuates the stigma that this institution is not for people like me. When I told my friends I was coming to school here, they asked why I was going to a racist school. To hear the fear from my grandparents about me coming to school here, that’s much larger than what moving a statue can fix. But all of it — all of it — is perpetuated by the presence and location of the statue and everything it represents.”
Benson continued: “We claim to follow ideals of inclusion, diversity and respect for all. It’s contradictory to have this symbol of hate in the heart of campus.”
National reporters descended on Oxford this week to cover the tension and watch the basketball team in their next game on Wednesday. But in the midst of the media frenzy, the six students who had been working for weeks to move the monument scheduled a planning meeting at 6 p.m. — just as the national anthem began.
The past few weeks, the war room served as the students’ second home. They researched state laws about public entities’ rights to move such a monument and relevant attorney general rulings on the law, talking with the university’s general counsel to better understand the law’s scope.
State law indicates that no monument erected to honor specific wars, including “The War Between the States,” as the state law reads, “may be relocated, removed, disturbed, altered, renamed or rededicated.” But in 2017, the office of Attorney General Jim Hood wrote an opinion for the city of McComb, which had asked for clarification of the state law.
“We are of the opinion that upon a proper finding by the governing authority that a location is more appropriate for displaying the monument, a monument may be moved to a more suitable location within the jurisdictional limits of the municipality,” the attorney general’s opinion states. Later, it clarifies the state law should be interpreted to mean a monument should “remain on public property for display and that it may not be removed from the municipality.”
The students also assessed recent practices at other Southern universities that have undertaken similar endeavors, like at University of North Carolina, where activists toppled a controversial confederate monument without going through the democratic process.
The complexity of this issue is portrayed perhaps clearest in Chapel Hill.
“The people who are paying the bills in the state of North Carolina, who underwrite in very significant ways the cost of operating that and every other institution in this system, by all polling and all accounts seem to support the restoration of the statue,” Margaret Spellings, the university system’s president, said. “Conversely, the community of Chapel Hill seems to feel very strongly that it should not be restored to its original place.”
The students determined how they could use personal relationships with influential student organizations and their leaders, deliberately including multiple stakeholders in the planning. They projected political scenarios and strategized how to release their plan to the public. They counted potential votes among various student and faculty groups and identified supporters and opponents.
They gauged the interest of faculty, staff and administrative leaders who would later need to sign off on whatever plan they ultimately developed.
At the end of that process emerged their best chance for success: A resolution to the Associated Student Body Senate, the legislative body elected by students, that would move the Confederate monument from the heart of campus to an on-campus cemetery where hundreds of Confederate Army soldiers are buried.
“The pull of history feels stronger in Mississippi than anywhere I’ve ever been, and I think that’s reinforced by the fact that we have these monuments, these symbols dating back to the Civil War,” said Chappell, a senior from New Mexico who is white and is among the six students to develop and draft the resolution.
“I think that as students, we want to understand the weight of that history without being weighed down by it. No one wants to forget history. I think there’s often this idea by some alumni or the powers that be that we’re trying to erase history. Well, we have a Center for Civil War Research, we have a Center for Southern Studies, we have the Slavery Research Group, a history department. We want to remember history, but there’s a difference between remembering history and revering it. When you put a statue of a Confederate soldier literally on a pedestal in a position of power on this campus, the center of campus, that’s not remembering; that’s elevating something that shouldn’t be elevated.”
The history of the monument
The University of Mississippi’s Confederate monument was dedicated to remember the lives of the “University Greys,” the Confederate army infantry that was almost completely made up of students from the university. All 135 soldiers in the infantry were killed at Gettysburg.
Erected in 1906, the monument was one of hundreds dedicated in Southern states between 1890 and 1920, according to data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
During that time period, white Southerners implemented Jim Crow laws following Reconstruction, the period following the war when freed black slaves ran Southern state governments. In Mississippi, the second Southern state to secede from the Union, the period saw two African American House speakers as well as the state’s first black congressman and U.S. senator. Later, Mississippi rewrote the state’s constitution to disenfranchise African Americans.
At the monument’s dedication ceremony, Confederate veteran Charles Scott delivered the main address, according to newspaper clippings. Historians wrote in a 2016 report about the monument that Scott was also campaigning for governor of Mississippi that spring. In his official gubernatorial platform released on March 31, 1906, Scott promised “the preservation and maintenance of civilization and white supremacy in the south.”
“Marking important public space with symbols that extolled white southern nationalism effectively asserted control over all of the public who had access to that space,” the historians wrote. “These elite white southerners, of course, were ever mindful of race as they worked to disenfranchise African Americans, establish Jim Crow restrictions in law, and lynch black men and women with grim enthusiasm.”
Well into the 20th century, the monument served as a rallying point for racist ideals. In his book “The Price of Defiance,” historian Charles Eagles wrote that during the riot spurred by James Meredith’s integration of the university in 1962, rioters who gathered near the Confederate monument physically assaulted white Episcopal minister Duncan Gray, who was there to discourage violence.
While there is no direct evidence the rioters chose the monument to rally and inflict physical violence, the UM historians wrote in 2016, it did “constitute an important site in the desegregation crisis: as a place where white opponents of integration violently put down their rival.”
Many defend the statue’s place on campus even today, but many students feel it doesn’t represent the student body or uphold the values of the UM Creed.
“Through my different roles on campus, I interact with the black student body on this campus and prospective African American students who wish to go here,” said Arielle Hudson, a African American junior from Tunica who served as orientation leader and is one of the six students who developed the monument resolution.
“I have to explain to these prospective students and their families why that statue sits on our campus, and in return, they have to beg their parents to let them attend here. We shouldn’t have to keep having to explain to our parents why we want to go here. Better yet, beg them to go here. I’m tired of having those conversations. We should feel just as welcomed to this university and just as safe on this campus as any white student.”
Hudson continued: “That statue is a constant reminder to the black students on this campus that there was a point in time when we were not allowed here and we were not wanted here. It sits in the heart of our campus, a place where nearly every student has to travel through at some point of their day to get to class. We see it every day, and we’re reminded of those things every day.”
In 2014, the university adopted recommendations to contextualize locations on campus with plaques that explained the historic significance of certain Confederate or controversial iconography and symbolism.
A contextualization committee in 2016 finalized language for the plaque that was placed at the base of the Confederate monument. After the plaque was installed, student leaders protested the plaque’s weak language and its omission of any mention of slavery. The university responded by installing a new plaque later that year that included language about slavery.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans revived an earlier lawsuit against the university over the installation of the plaque. That lawsuit was dismissed, and the six students are using a line from the judge’s dismissal ruling as a basis for their resolution.
“It’s vital that we remember history on this campus, but it’s also vital that we don’t leave it in the center of campus and make so many people walk by it without acknowledging the pain it causes,” said Katie Dames, a sophomore from St. Louis and one of the six planners of the resolution.
‘A unifying process, not a polarizing one’
The students anticipate blowback from powerful white alumni, conservatives or extremist groups. It’s why they say they invited a broad range of campus organizations to the table.
They spoke with professors who served on the university’s contextualization committee that researched the origins of the monument and made recommendations to the administration about how to provide context.
Dames, who serves on the student senate, reached out to Dalton Hull, the president the College Republicans. Hull is one of eight official cosponsors of the resolution.
“Issues like these are almost always put in a political context,” said Leah Davis, a junior from Tupelo who serves in student government and one the six who developed the resolution.
“People who want to have conversations about this, it’s made into, ‘Well, they’re a bunch of liberals.’ And so I think when talking about this, it’s important to have a lot of different people at the table — different political ideologies, different views, different perspectives. That’s the strategy we took, and that’s why I think it has a good chance.”
One clear hurdle the resolution faces is white Greek organizations, which are strongly influenced by their powerful alumni. But instead of writing the Greeks off, the group of six focused their efforts to garner support among them.
Several white Greek leaders serve on the ASB Senate, and the Greek bloc could prove important to the resolution’s fate.
Charlotte Armistead, a Tupelo native and the ASB senator representing “Greek Life,” was among the group of six students who developed the resolution. Armistead, who is white and a sorority member herself, served as the group’s liaison with the white Greek letter organizations, and she said the response from Greeks on campus has been encouraging. Armistead, whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, said she wanted to develop the resolution because the monument and its prominent location “isn’t what we stand for as an Ole Miss family.”
“I believe that Greek organizations on this campus have so much potential to mobilize and create positive change,” Armistead said, adding it naive to not have concerns about the resolutions gaining traction among white fraternity and sorority members.
“But there are so many more people than you’d realize within the Greek community who want this and want to advocate for social change. To push the Greek community aside or to write them off is a mistake, and we wanted to make sure to bring them to the table as we work on something that is really important for the future of our university.”
The student senate has served as a springboard for recent changes at the university, primarily through the passing of resolutions similar to the one being considered next week. One of the most notable was the university’s 2015 decision to not fly the state flag, the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem.
Several of the six students working on the monument resolution were on campus in 2015, and the group used lessons from that process in planning this resolution.
“What we’ve tried to do is come up with a group of people with different strengths,” Dames said. “Communicating with all of these different groups on campus and also communicating with the student body in a research-based way has been our process. We want this to be a unifying process instead of a polarizing one. We want this to be a conversation rather than an attack against perspectives other than our own.”
The resolution, which was made public for the first time on March 1, faces a long process before the monument can be moved.
The ASB Senate will vote on the resolution on Tuesday, March 5. If 25 of the 48 senators affirm, it moves to the Faculty Senate, the Graduate Student Council and the Staff Council, respectively. If those three bodies also affirm, it will move to the Council of Academic Administrators, comprised of top faculty council representatives and three student affairs vice chancellors. If that body affirms it, the resolution lands on the desk of the university’s chancellor.
Larry Sparks is interim chancellor while the state’s college board searches for a permanent replacement for Jeffrey Vitter, the former chancellor who stepped down last fall and returned to teaching.
If Sparks signs off, the decision goes to the trustees at the Institutions of Higher Learning. The 12 members of the college board are appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans as recently as 2017. That group unsuccessfully sued the university for placing the contextualization plaque at the monument in 2016.
While the monument’s ultimate fate is in the hands of political appointees in Jackson, the six students who drafted the resolution believe the democratic process supported by the many student organizations involved could provide a blueprint for addressing campus issues in the future.
“In the end, this is our university. We should be able to decide the narrative that’s told about it,” Chappell said. “We should be able to decide the symbols that represent the university. I’m really excited that student groups have stood up and said, ‘We are not represented by the Confederate statue. We are not represented by the state flag of Mississippi.'”