By Chris Hoenig
James Meredith broke racial barriers when he enrolled at the University of Mississippi in 1962. On Sunday, two men tried to tarnish that legacy when they defaced Meredith’s statue at the school.
Witnesses say the pair screamed racial slurs as they left a noose and an old Georgia state flag, which bears a Confederate emblem commonly used by white-supremacist groups, on the statue. The FBI has joined the investigation at the request of university police.
“It’s a racial hate crime,” Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson said after a news conference at the Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson. “At what level do they get prosecuted I don’t know. But as long as we tolerate hate, we will continue to revisit history and the past of this state, and at some point we must move forward.”
The university is offering a $25,000 reward for information that leads to the identification and arrest of the two men, one of whom appeared to be wearing camouflage pants. “These individuals chose our university’s most visible symbol of unity and educational accessibility to express their disagreement with our values,” university Chancellor Dan Jones said in a statement announcing the reward. “Their ideas have no place here, and our response will be an even greater commitment to promoting the values that are engraved on the statueCourage, Knowledge, Opportunity and Perseverance.”
“That just clearly shows that we’re not training our children like the Bible says,” Meredith, now 80 years old, told The Los Angeles Times from his Mississippi home Tuesday. “They don’t know right and wrong, good and bad and how to apply it to life.
“I’ve been knowing a long time that we aren’t teaching our kids right and wrong,” he added. “The Black race, more than any other, knew how to teach character, but somehow it has come to the point where people think they don’t have to do the old-fashioned learning.
“People came to believe they will get something for nothing. The future of the Black race depends on what the elders of the Black race do or do not do. I think Mississippi is ready to do the right thing.”
“This is particularly painful because the James Meredith statue has become a gathering place for students to discuss many things, including the tenets of our creed, which calls for dignity and respect for all people,” said Don Cole, Assistant to the Chancellor for Multicultural Affairs.
It’s the second discriminatory incident at the school in the past four months. Last October, the university launched an investigation into heckling that included anti-gay slurs at an on-campus performance of The Laramie Project, a play based on the robbery and murder of Matthew Shepard, who was targeted because of his sexual orientation.
The school has struggled with racial discrimination ever since Meredith enrolled in 1962. His admission to the school led to violence on the Oxford campus and the arrival of 500 U.S. marshals, ordered to the school by then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Despite the attempts of the state’s governor to prevent the integration of Ole Miss, Meredith was allowed on campus less than a week later.
The flag flying over Mississippi at the time of Meredith’s admission to the universitythe same one flying over the state since 1894contains the Confederate battle flag in the canton. The emblem of the pro-slavery South during the Civil War reappeared during the civil-rights movement as a symbol against desegregation. It also appeared in the Georgia state flag from 19562001.