Ole Miss: Facing the Change
At the University of Mississippi, a segregationist chant and Ku Klux Klan rally threaten to divide the campus community, but student leaders and their chancellor take a stand against hate and intolerance. This story is part of the Not In Our Town program, Class Actions, that premieres nationwide on PBS stations in February 2012.
In the fall of 2009, we received a concerned call from Reiko Callner, a leader in the community response to a neo-Nazi rally in Olympia, Washington. She'd heard from a friend in Oxford that the Ku Klux Klan planned to protest at the University of Mississippi. Reiko wanted to know what action was being taken, and whether we planned to cover the story.
Reiko is the creator of Unity in the Community. In the 2006 Not In Our Town film about Olympia’s response to the neo-Nazis, Reiko had said, ”Sometimes the worst threats bring out the best in people.” As we looked into the story in Oxford, we learned that Reiko was right and that the lessons of her northwestern capital city were just as relevant in this southern college town.
A chant with a racist history
Two years ago, controversy erupted at the University of Mississippi over student led actions to remove traditions associated with the Confederacy and segregation. Five decades after James Meredith integrated Ole Miss, students at football games surfaced the chant "The South will rise again," a civil war expression derived from, “Save your confederate money boys, the south will rise again.” The phrase was popularized by the southern Dixiecrats in the late 1940’s, and used as a slogan by the Ku Klux Klan to oppose integration when they chanted, “Glory, glory segregation, the south will rise again.” In the last decade, students at Ole Miss replaced the last six syllables of a football fight song, From Dixie With Love and chanted “Glory, glory hallelujah, the south will rise again” instead of the words from the song, “Glory, glory hallelujah, his truth is marching on.”
“There’s a lot of power in words,” Artair Rogers, the third African American student body president at Ole Miss said, “those words made me feel like I was back in 1962 when James Meredith was fighting to get into this university.” Toran Dean described her feelings when hearing the chant during football games, “African American students would just sit down because it was the one time that they felt like they weren't a part of our university.”
A few years earlier, the campus was rocked and divided when an African American student reported that he was verbally assaulted and pushed down a flight of stairs at an Ole Miss fraternity house. This event inspired Jake McGraw and Melissa Cole to create an organization called One Mississippi, a student group devoted to bridging racial and social barriers on campus. When “The South will rise again,” controversy created division, One Mississippi brought students together.
As Associated Student Body President, Artair Rogers led the student senate to pass legislation removing the chant from the football stadium. Chancellor Dan Jones supported the students, but was faced with opposition from members of the Ole Miss community who refused to let go of their traditions. When the chant did not subside, Chancellor Jones took it one step further and halted the band from playing From Dixie With Love, a football fight song that preceded the chant. Tensions soon escalated, and Chancellor Jones and Artair Rogers came under attack. Chancellor Jones said that while this period was personally painful, he knew that taking a stand would be of benefit to the university.
But the removal of the chant and fight song culminated in an on-campus rally by the Ku Klux Klan. In response, One Mississippi organized a peaceful counter-protest inviting students and members of the Ole Miss community to wear Unity stickers and “Turn Your Back on Hate” t-shirts. When over 200 people gathered, the group recited the University of Mississippi creed over and over again until the KKK gave up and left campus.
"They were looking to provoke the crowd, and because we led this peaceful counter demonstration they threw up their hands and said there’s no use protesting here," Jake McGraw, co-founder of One Mississippi said, "It was a very triumphant event for us -- not just for One Mississippi but for the student body and for everybody who loves this university."
Chancellor Jones said, "I'm so proud of our students for taking a stand. This is a happier and healthier place because of our bold students who provided great leadership.”
Melissa Cole, co-founder of One Mississippi said that the student group is “trying to keep the ball rolling on this type of change at Ole Miss and to show people that a place so connected with such a history cannot only reconcile it but change it for the better.”
Watch these Class Actions web video extras: