Although a number of other educational institutions have utilized Confederate symbols, the University of Mississippi is the school most closely associated with these emblems. And while protests over the use of Confederate symbols spanned the South during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the University of Mississippi has maintained the longest continuing dialogue on the issue. Opponents of these representations of the Lost Cause point out their adoption by segregationists, trace their origins to a conflict fought to preserve slavery, stress that campus symbols should represent all students, and highlight the damage these relics of the past cause to the university’s reputation and recruitment efforts. Proponents, conversely, reject historical interpretations that place slavery as a central cause of the Civil War, tout the emblem either as honoring dead soldiers or as simply representing school spirit, deny any personal racism, and defend the Confederate flag, the song “Dixie,” and Colonel Reb against perceived assaults on southern heritage.
The University of Mississippi and what is now the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) began using Confederate symbols in the 1930s and early 1940s. The University of Mississippi sports teams became known as the Rebels, while USM started in 1940 as the Confederates before quickly changing to the Southerners. Colonel Reb became the University of Mississippi’s mascot in 1937, while USM adopted General Nat, in a reference to Nathan Bedford Forrest, in 1953. USM changed its sports team and mascot to the Golden Eagles in 1972, but change came more slowly at the University of Mississippi.
Confrontations regarding Confederate symbols at the University of Mississippi and the effort to eliminate their use began in 1970. By that time, black enrollment had increased to more than two hundred students. At three separate protests, African American students burned a rebel banner, and the Black Student Union (BSU) published a set of demands that included curtailing the use of Confederate flags on campus. A proposal by the administration to add the letters UM to the school flag never became a reality, and the issue faded from public consciousness until 1979, when a brief flurry of debate occurred after the senior class donated Traveler, a horse named after Robert E. Lee’s steed, for the Colonel Reb mascot to ride.
The symbol conflict received national attention in 1982 when the university’s first black cheerleader, John Hawkins, refused to wave the Confederate flag at football games. In addition, when the university commemorated the twentieth anniversary of James Meredith’s 1962 integration of the school, he called for his alma mater to eliminate the use of all Civil War symbols. A few weeks later, twenty-nine members of the Ku Klux Klan marched through Oxford in support of the Confederate flag. While the student government passed a resolution favoring the continued use of such symbols and white students circulated supportive petitions, the BSU held a demonstration, presented the governor and the president of the board of trustees with a list of thirteen demands that included the abandonment of all Confederate symbols, and sponsored a boycott of the Red-Blue football game.
In April 1983, two days after a student rally of fifteen hundred flag proponents threatened to turn violent, Chancellor Porter L. Fortune instituted a new policy restricting official representatives of the university from wearing anything but university-registered symbols, which did not include the Confederate banner. In addition, the campus bookstore stopped selling rebel flags and merchandise with its image. But private individuals were still permitted to display the flag at university functions. The following autumn, the administration attempted unsuccessfully to introduce a new red, white, and blue flag with the words Ole Miss.
In 1985 Chancellor Gerald Turner requested that the school band play “Dixie” less often at sporting events, prompting a wave of columns and letters to the editor in the campus newspaper. The Confederate symbol issue subsequently resurfaced every fall with the start of football season. In 1989 the senior class fund-raiser created the “Battle M” flag (a blue block M with white stars on a solid red background). The mild success of this grassroots initiative encouraged the administration officially to adopt the new emblem, but the rebel standard continued to dominate in the stands.
In 1991, recognizing that the controversial symbols harmed the university’s image and recruitment efforts, both the Alumni Association Board and the Faculty Senate officially requested that fans not bring these Confederate emblems to university athletic events. The administration then announced a ban on all flags larger than twelve inches by eighteen inches in an effort to sidestep concerns about freedom of speech. During the 1993 basketball season, four black band members announced their refusal to play “Dixie.” The student government endorsed the song’s use, while the BSU instituted an economic boycott of campus food services. Outside organizations including the Southern Heritage Foundation, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and a Civil War reenactors group sponsored rallies in support of the campus Confederate symbols.
In 1996 the university altered the official flag to a solid red M on a blue background, a design that television viewers were less likely to confuse with the rebel battle standard. Many spectators nevertheless continued to favor the Confederate flag. Thus, in the fall of 1997, head football coach Tommy Tuberville asked fans to leave these banners at home, and the Associated Student Body requested that sticks be banned in the stands, another attempt to discourage spectators from bringing the flags. The administration quickly instituted the ban.
When rumors surfaced in 2002 that the administration was trying to eliminate “Dixie” from the band’s repertoire, Chancellor Robert Khayat announced that the university would retain both the tune and the Colonel Reb mascot. The following year, however, the university removed Colonel Reb as an on-field mascot, and in 2009 Chancellor Dan Jones ended the university band’s playing of “From Dixie with Love” so that students would not yell, “The South will rise again!” after the song ended. In 2010, the school adopted the Rebel Bear as its official mascot, a move that remains controversial in 2015, albeit less so as time goes by.
The issue of the Confederate battle flag returned to prominence in 2015 in the wake of shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, perpetrated by a gunman who used the flag as a symbol of white supremacy. According to a statement released by interim chancellor Morris H. Stocks, “The University of Mississippi community came to the realization years ago that the Confederate battle flag did not represent many of our core values such as civility and respect for others. Since that time, we have become a stronger and better university.”
- J. Michael Martinez, William D. Richardson, and Ron McNinch-Su, Confederate Symbols in the Contemporary South (2000)
- Eryn Taylor and CNN Wire, wreg.com (23 June 2015)
- Kevin Pierce Thornton, South Atlantic Quarterly (Summer 1987)
- Washington Post (21 April 1983)