One week after a photo emerged of white University of Mississippi students posing with guns in front of a bullet-riddled sign honoring murdered civil rights icon Emmett Till, campus groups and faculty have denounced the school’s weak response, demanding the administration discipline the students and remove a Confederate statue from university property.
The three students in the photo were suspended by their fraternity, the Ole Miss chapter of Kappa Alpha, an organization with its own racist history. (The fraternity’s website refers to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee as its “spiritual founder.”)
But Anne Twitty, an associate professor of history at Ole Miss, said the three students should be expelled.
It’s not a question, Twitty told HuffPost, of “what we owe the students who engaged in this behavior.” Rather, she argued, “it’s how we make sure current students, especially black students, feel safe and welcome at our institution, and how we make it plain to racist students that they are not welcome and that this behavior will not be tolerated.”
Twitty added that she doesn’t think the school has a First Amendment obligation to tolerate the students’ racist actions.
“I think these things are often framed [as] freedom of expression or freedom of speech, but the reality is, these students’ conduct infringes on broader 14th Amendment rights minority students have,” she said. “Their conduct makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to provide minority students the educational opportunities they are entitled to.”
The photo was uncovered by ProPublica and the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting. Originally posted on Instagram, it shows three Ole Miss students — Ben LeClere, John Lowe and Howell Logan — posing in front of a shot-up plaque marking the spot in Mississippi where Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River. Till, a 14-year-old black boy, was tortured and killed in 1955. An all-white jury acquitted the two white men who would later admit to murdering Till. His death was a catalyst for the modern civil rights movement.
The photo of the three Ole Miss students was posted at a time when hate crimes are on the rise for the fifth consecutive year. White supremacist homicides are also increasing, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
Ole Miss’ Black Student Union and the Associated Student Body, in a joint statement provided to HuffPost, said that although the three students’ actions may not have technically violated the school’s code of conduct, they certainly violated the university’s creed, which includes a pledge to “believe in respect for the dignity of each person.”
The photo “disrespects the dignity of a significant population of our campus community,” the student groups said. (Fourteen percent of the student population at Ole Miss is black, a drop of 4 percentage points from 2010.)
The photo came to the attention of the administration in March when a student filed a bias report to the university’s Office of Student Conduct. The school referred the report to university police, who referred it to the FBI.
The university chose to defer its investigation until the FBI made its own determination about the photo. But interim Chancellor Larry Sparks told ProPublica this week that a “lapse in communication” led to the school being unaware that the FBI had concluded its investigation ― which found that the photo didn’t represent a crime or a specific threat.
Sparks said Ole Miss is now investigating the photo, although school spokesman Rod Guajardo said last week that while the image is “offensive,” it does not constitute a violation of the university’s code of conduct. The incident, Guajardo noted to ProPublica, happened off-campus.
It’s unclear if the three students shot the Emmett Till sign themselves, or if the bullet holes were already there. The sign, like other Till memorials across Mississippi, has been a frequent target of white supremacist terror and vandalism.
In their statement, the Black Student Union and the Associated Student Body demanded that the administration make violations of the university creed “actionable” so “appropriate consequences can be taken when these situations arise.”
“We expect this course of action to be taken within 90 days after the release of this statement,” the groups said.
When reached for comment about the student groups’ demand, the administration at Ole Miss merely referred HuffPost to Sparks’ earlier statement.
Jarrius Adams, a 22-year-old recent graduate of Ole Miss who was active in the Black Students Union and was president of the school’s gospel choir, said black students at the school aren’t shocked by the photo of their fellow white students mocking the Emmett Till memorial.
“It’s not the most egregious thing that’s happened here, even during my tenure at the university,” Adams said. “We’ve been dealing with stuff like this in Mississippi and on our campus for decades.” (In 2014, for example, white students from a different fraternity hung a noose around a statue of James Meredith, the first black student to integrate the school.)
The latest incident, Adams said, just makes it “hard to defend the school.”
“It makes it harder to say it’s not bad,” he explained. “To say ‘I’m safe here, Mom, don’t worry.’ This is the emotional distress. It’s not fair for African-American students. We already come from communities [in Mississippi] where our schools are underfunded, the roads and bridges aren’t the best, our parents are working several jobs to make ends meet, and then finally we get the opportunity to go to a flagship university, this wonderful institution, and it’s supposed to be fun, but we can’t enjoy it because we’re fighting racist bullshit like this.”
In recent years, students have agitated for Ole Miss to make more of an effort to address its history of white supremacy. Plaques have been installed on campus noting that slaves built some of the school’s buildings. The marching band no longer plays “Dixie” at sports games. The Mississippi state flag, which includes a Confederate battle emblem in its upper left corner, was removed from school grounds.
But a prominent Confederate monument remains on campus, and in February, Adams helped lead a student protest calling for its removal. Neo-Confederate groups then held their own rally on campus in support of the monument.
Two weeks later, the Associated Student Body and the Faculty Senate passed unanimous resolutions calling for the Confederate monument on campus to be relocated. The monument, the student resolution said, “undermines our mission to maintain an inclusive and safe environment.”
Sparks voiced his support of the resolutions ― but noted that the board of trustees for the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, who are appointed by the state’s Republican governor, had to approve of plans to move the monument.
It was around this time that LeClere posted the racist Instagram photo.
“As long as the Confederate statue [stands] in the center of campus, these kinds of sickening actions will be all too common and we will continue to be a campus that attracts racists, drawn by our iconography and virulent past,” Antonia Eliason, an Ole Miss law professor, tweeted in July.
Jared Foster, communications chair for Students Against Social Injustice, agreed with Eliason’s assessment.
“The truth is that the University draws these people in from different cities and states to the Oxford area,” said Foster, a 21-year-old senior at the school. “It is beyond time for serious efforts to take place addressing the root cause of these issues.”
Jessie Wilkerson, an assistant professor of history and Southern studies at Ole Miss, told HuffPost in a statement that she sees white supremacy as a “daily and persistent threat on our campus and in our community.”
“I can only wish (and it seems like wishful thinking at this point) that this particular racist episode might be a breaking point when the administration will listen and fully commit itself to the daily work of dismantling white supremacy,” she said. “That point of reckoning has yet to occur.”