#UpWithIda Campaign Challenges the University of Mississippi to Celebrate a True Rebel

“Senior year, be good to me!” proclaimed University of Mississippi (UM) senior Mahoghany Jordan in a September 17, 2018, Facebook post. In the images accompanying her post, an exuberant Jordan poses in the Square, the central business and entertainment hub of Oxford, Mississippi. She was completely unaware that others had snapped photos of her and her friend Ki’yona Crawford. Those images went viral after Ed Meek—former Assistant Vice Chancellor for Public Relations and Marketing, former Associate Professor of Journalism, and namesake of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at UM—included them in his own Facebook post. His tone is markedly different. In his post, Meek urges “Oxford and Ole Miss leaders” to “get on top of this before it’s too late.” The this includes rising crime, declines in enrollment at the university, and losses in property values and tax revenue. He ends with a call “to protect the values we hold dear.” For Meek, African American women’s bodies do more than merely illustrate impending peril; they embody it. His comments represent ongoing contests in the town and on campus over space and the ways that black women’s bodies can play a central role.

As a person who built a career on strategically choosing words and images to convey meaning, Meek tapped into a centuries-old vernacular that marked African American women’s bodies as symbols of social disorder: sexually deviant, diseased, extractive, and criminal. Meek’s frame for Mahoghany Jordan’s and Ki’yona Crawford’s bodies in the Oxford Square is a powerful metaphor for what is, in the opinion of some, much of what is wrong in Oxford and other cities. In a separate post (since removed) expressing support for Meek, some likened the the Oxford Square to a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. Others lamented the loss of the square’s family-friendly atmosphere. These comments allude not only to gender tensions but also to racial tensions around hallowed spaces in the college town.

The University of Mississippi is in many ways ground zero for debates around the meaning of race in public spaces. The school removed the Confederate bars-and-stars-emblazoned state flag from campus in 2015. Student leaders of the #TakeDownTheFlag campaign brought national attention to the campus and won the NAACP’s highest honor, the Chairman’s Award, in 2016. The removal of the state flag ratcheted up a national dialogue about Confederate and white-supremacist iconography in public spaces.

UM responded. An extensive 2016 report supported contextualization of the Confederate memorial and other spaces on campus. UM ended its tradition of playing “Dixie” during football games. It erected plaques that contextualize the Confederate memorial and some buildings on campus. It made structural changes, too. UM hired Katrina Caldwell, an African American woman, as its first-ever Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Community Engagement. These are promising steps.

Despite these achievements, the campus still remains a place where contestations over who has legitimate rights to public spaces continue. Backlash against removal of the flag includes a grassroots campaign with the motto “Ole Miss, You Take Our Money, You Fly Our Flag.” Recently, in February 2019, two white nationalist groups organized a rally on campus protesting efforts to relocate the Confederate statue. Many professors canceled classes in response to parents’ and students’ fears of racially motivated violence similar to what occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia. Much of the campus still pays homage to the Lost Cause ideology. The names of prominent architects and supporters of white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation adorn street and building names on campus. The campus architecture mirrors the Neoclassical and Greek Revival style of stately antebellum plantation mansions.

More still needs to be done, if UM leadership has the political will to address the campus’ symbolic geography and to counter its narratives of racial exclusion. One effective strategy is to open alternative narratives. Visible acknowledgment of the enslaved people who built and worked at the university, from a public memorial to a reworking of the university’s campus tours and public relations, can stimulate conversations about the legacies of slavery and segregation. A campus memorial to African Americans from Lafayette County who fought for the Union Army would stand in sharp relief to the dominant Lost Cause narrative and call attention to the difficult and continuing struggle for inclusion. In Oxford, a memorial to Elwood Higginbottom, an African American man lynched in the town in 1935, opens up difficult conversations about racial sexual violence with contemporary ramifications. Opportunities to highlight the contributions of women, Native Americans, and other groups also abound.

A few days after his post, Meek offered to remove his name from UM’s journalism school. Since then, a number of statements, petitions, and editorials have offered the possibility of renaming the school the Ida B. Wells-Barnett School of Journalism and New Media. Born in 1862 only half an hour away from Oxford, the pioneering journalist and activist Wells-Barnett was a tireless crusader for justice. In her life and work on rape, lynching, anti-discrimination, and social reform, Wells-Barnett stressed the larger structural sources of economic and political oppression. Topics that consumed her attention and her pen, such as police brutality, mass incarceration, sexual violence, and economic inequality, remain pressing concerns.  

Creating the Wells-Barnett School of Journalism and New Media would be another far-reaching step to counter legacies of slavery and racism. UM administrators point to the achievements of UM students, faculty, and staff to demonstrate evolving definitions of the Rebel, the original and enduring UM mascot. They argue that these achievements distance associations away from the Confederate soldier defending a distinctive way of Southern life dependent on slavery. These achievements highlight other kinds of rebels: talented, progressive-minded individuals dedicated to diversity and excellence. Wells-Barnett was another kind of rebel, too. The Wells-Barnett School of Journalism and New Media will serve as a new monument to previous, current, and future generations of achievers.

The school of journalism building stands near the Grove and the University Circle, where the current Confederate memorial stands. During football season, tens of thousands of fans converge on the Grove. In “How They Do in Oxford,” nationally renowned author Kiese Laymon highlights “ritualized Southern comfort and uniformity” in on-campus celebrations. Some fans glorify the Confederacy, from Confederate-flag jumpsuits to elegant Confederate flag- and plantation-inspired tablescapes, in their tailgaiting celebrations in the Grove. Standing both across from the Grove and in the long shadow of the Confederate memorial, Wells-Barnett’s name and powerful legacy would stand as a material and symbolic counternarrative to the Lost Cause ideology embodied in the campus’ monument, architecture, and spaces.

Since September, the Common Ground Committee, comprising school of journalism faculty members, has considered how to deal with the Meek controversy. The committee, however, has backed away from associations with grassroots efforts to rename the school. The committee made clear in newspaper reports that it played no part in petition drives and will issue its final recommendations to Will Norton, the dean of the school of journalism, this month.

Professors, administrators, and community members plan a teach-in on Friday, April 5 to highlight Wells-Barnett’s work. Recently, too, Interim Chancellor Larry Sparks announced support for moving the Confederate monument from the Circle “to a more suitable location,” but when and if the move will happen remains uncertain. Just as with #TakeDownTheFlag in 2015, #UpWithIda encourages the Common Ground Committee and the University of Mississippi to take a bold step: create the Ida B. Wells-Barnett School of Journalism and New Media. UM should not miss the chance to open rather than mute the conversation about UM’s racial legacies and its future promise: to raise up a true rebel.

Shennette Garrett-Scott is associate professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Mississippi. Her newly released book, Banking on Freedom: Black Women in U.S. Finance Before the New Deal (Columbia University Press, 2019), is the first full-length history of finance capitalism that centers black women and the banking institutions and networks they built from the eve of the Civil War to the Great Depression. She is featured in the PBS documentary, BOSS: The Black Experience in Business, airing April 23, 2019. Follow her @EbonRebel