So, here we are again.
The weekend marked another chapter in a story that has engulfed Oxford and the entire Southeast for decades. Oxford once again served as a metaphorical battleground for the conflict between progress and a lost cause. In one corner, we have a vast majority of students, faculty and alumni looking to move forward. In the other, we have a small group of people scratching and clawing to keep Mississippi the same in the name of preserving history and “heritage.”
With marches and protests taking place on Saturday, our image on a national scope came from a place no one expected.
Ole Miss basketball players Devontae Shuler, KJ Buffen, D.C. Davis, Brian Halums, Luis Rodriguez, Bruce Stevens, Breein Tyree and Franco Miller Jr. each dropped to a knee during the national anthem before Saturday’s game against Georgia. The demonstration was a direct response to neo-Confederate groups marching from the Oxford Square to the Confederate statue on campus. Both Kermit Davis and Ross Bjork declared their support for the players.
Ole Miss won twice on Saturday, on the court and in the eyes of national media. There may be alumni pulling money or calling for Kermit Davis to be fired, but at the root of this is the university’s most visible students’ expression of sentiments shared by the majority of the student body, a move that could be significant in Ole Miss history.
The eight players are the first male student-athletes at a major university to kneel during the national anthem, and while the players making this statement might have been unexpected, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ole Miss athletes took a stand.
It’s often said that athletics is the window to a university. At Ole Miss, it’s an open front door inviting the nation come inside and look at years of racial tension in Mississippi.
We can see there are moments in the history of Ole Miss sports that serve as landmarks to major shifts at the university. The most recognizable landmark is Ross Barnett’s infamous “I Love Mississippi” speech in 1962.
On Sept. 29, 1962, then-governor of Mississippi Ross Barnett delivered a speech to thousands of fans waving Confederate battle flags during halftime at the Ole Miss vs. Kentucky game in Jackson, assuring the crowd that he’d never allow James Meredith, or any black student, to enroll at the school. The next day, segregationists and state and federal law enforcement clashed in front of the Lyceum during the Ole Miss riot of 1962.
Sports have always been a major pillar of Ole Miss’s identity. That was the identity of Ole Miss in 1962.
Flash forward 20 years and we have another landmark, and this one is reminiscent of the demonstration we saw on Saturday.
It was a custom for Ole Miss male cheerleaders to run on the field with the Confederate battle flag before every football game. In 1982, John Hawkins, the first black cheerleader at Ole Miss, decided not to carry the flag.
“While I’m an Ole Miss cheerleader, I’m still a black man,” Hawkins told reporters in a press conference after the announcement. “In my household, I wasn’t told to hate the flag, but I did have history classes and know what my ancestors went through and what the Rebel flag represents. It is my choice that I prefer not to wave one.”
Hawkins chose to take a stand when most alumni weren’t necessarily fond of him even lifting, catching or cheering alongside white cheerleaders. After marches and protests from both sides of the issue, the university banned official use of the Confederate flag as a school symbol the next year.
Hawkins triggered change by simply using his right to express his issues with the status quo, but there’s still the question of why there was a sea of Confederate battle flags in the crowds in 1982 anyway. There was progress, but there was still a long way to go.
The players who knelt on Saturday displayed the same courage that Hawkins did, and it remains to be seen what effects this will have. But it does pose another question: Why do we have a statue that neo-Confederate hate groups can rally around on our campus in 2019?
There is significant progress, but there’s still a long way to go.
Check out our full coverage of the weekend protests here.