At Ole Miss, evolving perceptions both outward and inward
Oxford is more than a town, much more. It's a way of life, a place built with words that holds the heart, mind and spirit of those who call it home whether for four years or a lifetime. Oxford is at the crossroads of Southern culture, class and cuisine. The storied buildings around the picture perfect town square seem to hold the key to Southern culture, equally embracing learning and leisure. In many ways Oxford is a dichotomy, simultaneously offering stimulation and serenity, creativity and calm. Oxford is a state of mind, a gateway to some and a lifelong home to others. It's a place where all four seasons take a firm hold, accentuated by football games, festivals and friendships.
Oxford is full of stories that resonate with a tenor that can only be found in a town that reverberates Southern charisma and charm. Enjoy the slices of life that follow as they are but snapshots of the town and university we so deeply love and admire.
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[Linebacker D.T. Shackelford and former quarterback Barry Brunetti celebrate a Music City Bowl win last December. Shackelford remembers a KKK rally that occurred on campus during his freshman season with the Rebels. ( Jim Brown / USA TODAY Sports)]
OXFORD, Miss. — On Saturday morning, a second-year law student at the University of Mississippi will rise early and join tens of thousands of fellow students and fans in The Grove, a 10-acre plot of land famous for its pre-game tailgate parties. Katherine Diem, however, will do it in the cartoonish costume of a white-haired man dressed as an old Confederate soldier, mimicking the “Colonel Reb” mascot that served as the school’s official mascot until 2003.
Diem, who said she has been enthralled since childhood with the idea of being a mascot, will spend those hours before kickoff wandering The Grove, taking pictures with fans and handing out stickers of support for Ole Miss. But like nearly all other symbols associated with this state’s Confederate past, Colonel Reb will be nowhere in sight when the school’s 11th-ranked football team takes on No. 1 Alabama inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
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“I can try,” said Diem, who grew up outside Atlanta, “but they won’t let me in.”
Beginning with a 1997 decision by former chancellor Robert Khayat to ban Confederate flags from the football stadium, Ole Miss is nearly two decades into a concerted effort to re-brand as a modern, progressive national university and put distance between the current reality and its racially troubled past.
The process, which included shutting down Colonel Reb as the official mascot and removing “From Dixie With Love” from the marching band’s set list, has often been difficult and drawn significant backlash from students and alumni who accused the school’s leadership of sacrificing sacred traditions in the name of political correctness.
[Despite a plea from Mississippi football coach Tommy Tuberville not to do so, students still brought Confederate flags into Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in this Mississippi-Vanderbilt game in 1997. (AP)]
But, as some of those same people now acknowledge, it has also put the school in position to showcase a more diverse and progressive university and avoid unnecessary controversy when ESPN originates its College GameDay program from The Grove for the first time.
“It was very painful (for fans) at the time,” said Reggie Barnes, a prominent Ole Miss graduate and booster who works at a Memphis-based investment firm. “I was probably one of the last to get on the bandwagon, but that was the thing we needed to do.”
At a time of high awareness for how racially-charged images and symbols fit within the context of sports, it is in large part due to Ole Miss’ willingness to part with some traditions that it finds itself on the national stage this week able to talk about its idyllic campus, academic profile and improving football program under coach Hugh Freeze rather than the baggage of past controversies.
That was, in many ways, the vision Khayat had in 1997 when he enlisted the help of public relations magnate Harold Burson, himself an Ole Miss graduate, to help change the image of the university.
“He called me one day and said, ‘Harold, you’ve got help me get the Confederate flags off the campus,’ and I said, ‘Robert, what have you been smoking?’” Burson said in a phone interview this week. “I told him, ‘You’ll never get them off.’ He said, ‘We’ve got to.’ ”
Though a large part of Khayat’s motivation was attracting a chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, it was also rooted in football. From 1970 when integration finally took hold in the Southeastern Conference (Ole Miss’ first black player didn’t compete until 1972) until the last 15 years, the Rebels were barely a factor, suffering through long stretches of mediocre or losing seasons. Khayat, who was a kicker on Ole Miss teams in the late 1950s, pinned many of those struggles on the inability to attract elite African-American players.
“Each head coach until Coach Freeze told me the (Confederate) flag was used against Ole Miss in recruiting,” Khayat said this week. “Other teams, some of them, would show film of unpleasant events that took place on our campus and had the flag highly exposed. You go into an African-American grandfather or a mother or father’s home and show them that film, they don’t want their child to go to a place where they treat black people that way. Who would?”
Though racism may not have played out that way in reality by the late 1990s, it was a powerful argument against attending Ole Miss when combined with a game day atmosphere that so prominently featured Confederate flags and prioritized its connection to Civil War history.
“As a school that in many ways had been the Fort Knox of lost cause imagery and the Old South imagery, we were not able to compete in an integrated landscape,” said Jake McGraw, public policy coordinator at the Oxford-based William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. “We were not unique in playing Dixie and waving the flags among the SEC schools, but we were definitely the last holdout. While other schools decided that they needed to keep up with the changing landscape, I think Ole Miss generally prioritized tradition over competition.”
Untangling the school from those traditions was far from simple. Khayat received death threats and traveled with bodyguards for several months after his decision to ban the flags from the stadium. Coach Tommy Tuberville, who knew the flag was hurting him in recruiting but initially told Burson he “wasn’t going to touch it with a 10-foot pole,” eventually agreed to become the spokesman of the issue but left for SEC rival Auburn shortly thereafter.
Then, as soon as the flag issue finally died down, Ole Miss went through another campus-wide controversy when the administration, led by then-athletics director Pete Boone, removed Colonel Reb from the sidelines and eventually from all licensed merchandise.
Initially, the response was a large and well-funded media effort to save Colonel Reb that lasted nearly seven years until the school officially adopted a “Rebel Black Bear” as its mascot in 2010.
But as time has passed, the “Colonel Reb Foundation” has grown smaller and receives almost no contributions these days aside from what it makes on t-shirt sales. Diem dons the costume mainly because it’s fun and she loves the reception it gets.
“He’s a rock star,” she said.
[Colonel Reb seen waiting outside the stadium. (Photo via Colonel Reb Foundation/Saveolemiss.com)]
Diem draws a distinction between the Confederate flag, which she believes is offensive, and the mascot, which she views as a vehicle for school spirit. Like others who support the cause, Diem also believes the process to replace Colonel Reb with the Black Bear didn’t take into enough account what students and fans wanted.
“I look around here versus other places in the South, and I think they’ve done great things to repair race relations and make an effort to bring diversity here,” she said. “The people here are some of the nicest, most non-judgmental people I’ve ever met. I don’t want Ole Miss to have a negative image. I’d love to take people on a walk with me. People of all ages, backgrounds; it’s incredible the emotions he evokes.”
It’s hard to fault the administration, however, for erring on the side of caution when the school’s image makeover has resulted in a 50% increase in freshman applications over the last six years and increased retention of minority faculty. Last fall the school had 3,439 African-American students on campus, more than double the number it had in 2001.
“It’s not the place that it maybe was once,” Khayat said. “We don’t try to deny any the past, but what we want is a fair shake publicly on where we are now, which is way ahead.”
And despite threats from some fans after each removal of a Confederate tie that they would stop buying tickets or withhold donations, Ole Miss football has never been hotter or in better shape financially. As that realization has taken hold, the peripheral issues have largely receded into the background. Fans, for the most part, have figured out they have better things to do than fight battles over imagery from a war that ended nearly 150 years ago.
“Every incremental change has a similar backlash, but I think those voices have been marginalized because morale is at such a high right now,” McGraw said. “I think the white fan base who grew up with positive cultural attachments to those symbols now understand how they feel about those them is not how they’re perceived nationally, and the risk of a national public relations embarrassment is greater than the need to flaunt our own cultural identity manifested through these symbols.”
The school’s vigilance in reshaping perception is also rooted in the fact that there’s always danger of fringe elements using high-profile campus events — like, perhaps, a football game — to make themselves known, drawing negative national attention.
Just this past February, a group of teen-agers vandalized a statue of James Meredith, the school’s first African-American student, putting a noose around its neck and draping the body with the old Georgia flag. A small group of students protesting on election night in 2012 had racial overtones, drawing a rebuke from the administration. And as recently as 2009, the Ku Klux Klan attempted to stage a demonstration on campus the same day as Ole Miss’ game against LSU after current chancellor Dan Jones’ decision to ban “From Dixie With Love,” a medley that incited students to chant “the South will rise again.”
[Former Mississippi coaches had told administators that the school’s iconography in the past hurt recruiting. Current Rebels defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (5), right, was the nation’s No. 1 recruit two years ago. (Spruce Derden/USA TODAY Sports)]
“Sports is so big and it magnifies so much more than just football,” said linebacker D.T. Shackelford, who was a freshman in 2009 when the rally occurred. “You don’t want to see that at a university you go to, that you give so much to, but this was a university that gave me a great opportunity to succeed, so I can’t thank them enough. A lot of parents will ask about those things, but racism is everywhere. It’s not going to go away overnight, but football goes right against racism, and we have everybody on one accord.”
Though Ole Miss officials say they don’t expect any similar problems Saturday, they do expect even more people than usual who don’t have tickets to the game to be in the area, which could produce conditions ripe for someone seeking attention to a cause.
“We do attract fringe groups sometimes, so we’re always prepared,” Jones said. “Any time there’s a larger national attention on us, we make sure we have things in place to manage any kind of disruption that might come, but nothing out of the ordinary. It’s usual business with higher volumes.”
That volume, however, means a greater chance that one sign or flag could hit ESPN, producing an image that reverberates across social media, feeding into an image of Ole Miss that they’d like to leave in the past.
And managing that relationship continues to be complex, even to this day. A study completed in 2013 by the school’s Sensitivity and Respect Committee raised eyebrows on campus when it acknowledged the notion that the Ole Miss nickname, which is widely believed to have roots in plantation lexicon, makes some in the academic community uncomfortable.
Though there is no movement at all to remove it, particularly in the athletic context, Jones sent a letter to the campus community in August that mentioned a still-in-development plan for guidance on when to use “Ole Miss” and when to use “the University of Mississippi.” At a school that was once the epicenter of integration problems in higher education, the self-image issues almost never end.
But that will all go away for at least three hours Saturday when the nation peers into this tiny college town to watch what should be one of the season’s best football games. After 15 years of tough decisions leading up to this stage, Ole Miss has at least positioned itself as best as it can to portray the right image.
“There’s a lot of exposure that comes with this sort of thing, and in today’s world that’s important,” Jones said. “People draw inferences about our English department from the way the shrubbery looks, so those things have a large halo effect. It would be my hope people would be left with a favorable impression broadly of the University of Mississippi.”