This article is adapted from a Southern Register Director’s Column by Ted Ownby, written in the Spring of 2014.

On Symbols, Violence, and the Confederacy in Southern University Towns

Thinking about violence, race, region, and statues in a southern university town takes me back to Spring 2014, when I wrote a column in the Southern Register. It began by discussing the range of topics Southern Studies faculty, students, and staff were pursuing, and then addressed a local event:

In the middle of all of this activity, some terrorists offered their own definition of the South. They put a noose around the neck of the James Meredith statue on the University of Mississippi campus and draped on the statue an old Georgia state flag, the version that included the flag of the Confederacy. Combining violence, white privilege, and Confederate imagery, the act was offensive and damaging to everyone at the university and beyond it. In Southern Studies, it represented a challenge, among other things, to our perspectives that thinking about the South does not need to begin and end with the Confederacy and, connected to that point, that is our job to try to study everybody and everything.

To many people, the terrorist act raised the possibility that some people are attracted to the University of Mississippi by symbols, language, and history that suggest this is a place where it should be easy and comfortable to claim privileges associated with ideas of white supremacy. It therefore raised a possibility that someone, in the name of Southern Studies narrowly and university life and decency more broadly, should tell them that if they think the University of Mississippi stands for traditions of white southern privilege, there are lots of hard-working people who disagree. So, in case any of those people read the Southern Register, and to further the goals of Southern Studies, I offer this short letter.

Dear potential terrorists,

If you are thinking of coming to the University of Mississippi because you hope its symbols, appearance, organizations, or anything else mean the university is a place to enjoy white privileges you associate with southern tradition, don’t come. If you assume that a university that aggressively studies the South celebrates the Old South, you’re wrong. If you come to the university hoping it is a place to relive privileges associated with powerful people in the antebellum South, you will likely be disappointed, frustrated, and angry. On the other hand, if you want to confront and help define important issues, to learn about yourself and other people, and to be part of discussions about multiple experiences, perspectives, and forms of expression, great, please come join us, because those are among the things universities do best. 

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