A deeper distress at Ole Miss

The failure to grapple with the sins of the fathers is nowhere more palpable than in the churches.

By Alan Bean

The University of Mississippi just can’t outrun its association with bigotry.

In 2012, a crowd of angry white students expressed their displeasure in the wake of Barack Obama’s re-election. And just last month, a small group of freshmen wrapped an old Georgia flag bearing the Confederate stars and bars around the statue of James Meredith, the man who integrated Ole Miss in 1962. In case somebody didn’t catch the symbolism, the students then wrapped a noose around the statue’s neck.

None of this bears a passing resemblance to the massive riots sparked by Mr. Meredith’s arrival on campus in 1962 that left two people dead. But the mix of sophomoric immaturity, alcohol and Old South pride can still be toxic. According to a CNN story, Kiesha Reeves, a black Ole Miss senior, told police that, days after the statue incident, someone in a passing car carrying several white students threw alcohol on her and shouted a racial slur.

Mississippi and its flagship university have come a long way in the past 52 years; but Old South bigotry continues to smolder, largely because the folks in charge of institutions like Ole Miss routinely fail to denounce the hate with sufficient sincerity. Everybody knows that racial resentment, in various degrees, continues to stalk the campus and that a small but significant minority of the white student body is working hard to keep the spirit of ’62 alive.

So, what can you do but make the best of a bad situation. After all, things aren’t nearly as bad as they used to be.

Recent reports suggest that federal charges may be filed against the alleged perpetrators. Is that really the answer? If these students are a symptom of a larger social malady (and they are), sending them to prison for six months or a year will simply create a scapegoat and sweep the nasty business under the rug yet again.

The problem here isn’t overt racial hatred. The kids who defaced the Meredith statue may have black friends for all I know. These kids just don’t want to let go of the Southern pride they imbibed with their mother’s milk. They want to feel good about being white southerners. They don’t want to reckon with the past or chart a fresh course. They just want to leave the past in the past, and they can’t do that with Mr. Meredith’s statue standing just a stone’s throw away from the Confederate memorial that still dominates the campus (along with hundreds of city squares and court houses across the Old South). 

You have to sympathize with these white kids. Over yonder stands a tribute to a defiant James Meredith striding boldly into the teeth of vicious white bigotry. And then there’s the Confederate shrine close by. Nobody tells you how to make sense of the contradiction.

The University of Mississippi decides to do away with the team name “the Rebels” only to have the legislature pass a law reversing that decision. The state of Mississippi allows its citizens to celebrate Martin Luther King Day or Robert E. Lee Day, whichever floats your boat. In a final indignity, the people of Mississippi recently voted to retain a state flag that features the stars and bars. I am taken aback every time I return to the state and see that flag snapping proudly in the wind. And I’m white. How do you expect a historically savvy African American student to feel?

Nowhere is the failure to grapple with the sins of the fathers more palpable than in the churches. Mississippi segregation, like the slave state it replaced, was an anti-Christian institution that called into question the faith of the planet’s most pious people. How could followers of Jesus Christ think and behave with such craven malice? That is precisely the question the kids who draped the flag and fastened the noose are desperate to avoid.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.