Students in racist photo do not represent the university, Sparks says

Posted on Jul 26 2019 - 1:28pm by Kenneth Niemeyer

Interim Chancellor Larry Sparks said in a statement released Friday afternoon that the students seen in a photo in front of a bullet-riddled Emmett Till memorial do not represent the values of the institution.

Sparks said that the incident occurred off campus, was not a part of a university affiliated event and that the university has limits on its tools to remedy the “offensive behavior.”

Ben Leclere, who posted the photo on Instagram, is seen standing to the left of the memorial with a rifle and John Lowe is seen squatting below the sign. A third man, who has not been identified, is seen standing to the right of the marker with an AR-15 assault rifle.

Photo courtesy: Instagram

“They do not speak for our institution, and they do not define us,” Sparks said in the statement. “What makes this different than other offensive, hurtful and disgusting things we see on social media each day is that, at the very least, it belittles the price that a 14-year-old paid for being black.”

In a previous statement, University spokesperson Rod Guajardo said that the image did not “represent a violation of the university’s code of conduct,” but was “offensive.”

Till’s death in 1955 was a catalyst of the civil rights movement, and Thursday would have been his 78th birthday. The memorial is a sight marker for the location that Till’s body was found.

The Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting first reported that the photo had been referred to the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department for further investigation.

Sparks said in the statement that the university learned of the image in March through a report to its Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT). The BIRT is designed to provide support and effective advocacy on behalf of impacted students, faculty and staff members who are targets of bias. 

“A Bias Incident is characterized as a behavior or act that targets an individual or group based on perceived or actual characteristics such as, but not limited to, race, religious belief, sexual orientation, disability or age,” the BIRT web page says.

Examples of bias incidents on the BIRT web page include offensive graffiti, using racial slurs, posting or commenting on social media related to someone’s identity and displaying graphics that imitate, stereotype, belittle, or ridicule someone because of their gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, faith or political affiliation. 

The BIRT received 31 bias incident reports in the 2018-2019 school year.

After the image was given to the BIRT it was passed to the University Police Department who sent it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI declined to investigate further because the photo “did not pose a specific threat.”

“We are a community of scholars committed to creating an academic experience that teaches racial equity, and we unequivocally reject attitudes that do not respect the dignity of each individual,” Sparks said in the statement.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article should have reported that Sparks’ statement was released on Friday afternoon, not Thursday afternoon.