Racist fiasco at Ole Miss dredged-up memories of 1962 and beyond

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James Meredith between U.S. Marshal James McShane (left) and Justice Department’s John Doar, University of Mississippi, October 1, 1962. (Photo by Marion Trikosko, Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress (LC-U9- 8556-24))

On Thursday, May 2, 2024, a group of students at the University of Mississippi gathered for a peaceful protest against America’s support for and involvement in the Israeli military actions in Gaza. Those forty or so students, who just happened to be mostly Black, had, according to the university administration, gone through the necessary channels to stage such a protest. Perhaps because they had gone through the bureaucratic channels and been “scheduled” by the time of the event, several hundred white counter-protesters had gathered to confront them.

Unlike many such similar protests across the country against what many on other campuses, in many communities and even by the United Nations have deemed as genocide by Israel, the counter-protesters quickly turned it into an ugly racial incident. Although on a smaller scale, it reminded veteran racial observers of the riot that occurred 62 years earlier when James Meredith, a Black Air Force veteran, was escorted by federal officials onto the campus of the University of Mississippi.

As one of the leaders of the group of Ole Miss Black students began her speech, a white student identified as James JP Stokes, began making ape-like gestures and noises. As he did so, other white students cheered or otherwise displayed their support. At least two of the supporting students have been identified. These were Connor Moore and Rouse Davis Boyce, both members of Kappa Alpha Order, which according to some is a well-known racist and ultra conservative fraternity. As the racist antics were being displayed, campus security could be viewed standing-by, almost appearing to be supportive of the racists rather than taking any action to bring the fiasco to an end.

By that Sunday, Phi Delta Theta, the fraternity to which Stokes belonged, announced that it had removed him from membership. The University of Mississippi also announced that it was investigating to see what and if any other actions need to be taken. As of press time, that is where matters stand from the perspective of official stances. 

One would have hoped that University Chancellor Glenn Boyce would have issued a strong statement condemning such racist action and hate speech. Such a statement would have gone a long way toward saying that this is a new day at Ole Miss, especially, given the history of the university, the state, and the region. One would hate to think that he could not declare it a new day because he recognizes that it is not a new day. (Of course, much may be determined by what is found through the investigation; that it is not swept under the rug with just the suspension of Stokes; that things do not go back to business as usual, until another opportunity prompts another expression of racism, next time even worse.)

As a senior citizen, the writer can recall that for generations many people have declared that “as soon as the old heads die out things will change because the younger people are not as prejudiced.” What Stokes, Moore, Boyce, and the other white antagonists demonstrate, however, is that their socialization, their enculturation, has included a “baptism” in the “southern way of life.” They are apparently proud of and willing to carry on just as their ancestors have historically done when it comes to racism, racial hatred, and the standard agenda of racial supremacy. 

By the same token, there are many people who feel that racism is a problem that plagues only the less educated. Again, by considering the actions of the Ole Miss counter-protesters, one can see that racism is bred in all classes/levels of the populace. That truth is, has been, and can be further confirmed by looking at many racist leaders past and present. Some of the most vocal and effective racist apologists have been college-educated, from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, to Jefferson Davis and J.Z. George, to James Eastland and George Wallace, to Tom Cotton and Donald Trump. Having made that statement, however, the writer would quickly add that, nevertheless, there are some who can be changed by being exposed to effective programs designed to thoroughly examine individual and institutional or systemic racism, revealing their existence, their impact, and their immorality. 

What occurred at Ole Miss earlier this month should never be repeated. In order for that to happen, however, a great deal of work has to be done. Among other things, we have to (1) understand the history and dynamics of racism, (2) commit ourselves to closing the racial chasm that has widened since the advent of Donald Trump, (3) actively involve ourselves in challenging racism when and wherever it manifests itself, (5) support programs that appear to be effective in reducing racism on the personal and institutional levels, and (6) be willing to be less privileged and less popular because of one’s stance in promoting democracy, anti-racism since that is generally the cost for taking a stand for such racial justice. Realizing that this is a tall order and that it requires significant support across the board, the writer expects no quick turn-around, but will try to remain optimistic. 

Because it is important that leaders and role models speak out on occasions such as this and because she touches on many aspects of the problem and the solution embedded in the Ole Miss racial fiasco, we close with this statement from State Representative Zakiya Summers.

“I vehemently condemn the racist actions of a white male student who taunted a Black female student while his peers laughed and security ignored, during a recent protest at the University of Mississippi. Such behavior has no place in our society, let alone our educational institutions. This is precisely why civil rights history, DEI initiatives, and implicit bias training are critical to all educational and professional development. I stand in solidarity with those affected and demand swift and decisive action against all involved. Fraternity expulsion is a first step, but is insufficient. University officials must ensure that all students can learn and exercise their constitutional rights in a safe and inclusive environment.”

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Racist fiasco at Ole Miss dredged-up memories of 1962 and beyond

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
May 28, 2024