Is “Ole Miss” a historical nickname for plantation women used during the days of slavery, an offensive phrase or the name of a major Southern university?
It’s all three, of course — depending on who you are and in what you believe. That’s why the University of Mississippi’s latest effort to move its campus into the direction of 21st-century diversity is so difficult. It might even be impossible.
Of all the South’s leading universities, Ole Miss is the one that’s had the most arduous time shedding the remnants of its state’s difficult past. Civil War and plantation symbolism envelop that school’s campus, from the name of streets, to racial violence that happened there in 1962, to the name of the school’s athletic teams — the Rebels. Previous administrators in Oxford, Miss., have already banned the Confederate battle flag from Ole Miss football games and removed the Colonel Reb mascot from the sidelines (replacing him with a black bear mascot), both long-standing university traditions.
The reason is clear: A public university in a state with one of America’s largest black populations can’t justify the waving of symbols that blacks strongly associate with racism, oppressive Jim Crow policies and slavery.
University administrators now want to limit the use of the name “Ole Miss” — they’d prefer the more-traditional “University of Mississippi” — and change the school’s email domain names to umiss.edu from olemiss.edu. (They say that’s in response to the strong desires of the school’s faculty, staff and students.) “The nickname,” administrators wrote in a report released this month, “could be reserved, as it is for almost all other universities, for athletics and alumni relations.”
Our response: Good luck.
In a way, we feel for the good-minded people at that university. They didn’t adopt the “Ole Miss” nickname or choose its Confederate symbols. They merely inherited them; some have fully supported them. And, let’s be honest, Mississippi is one of many Southern states that has struggled to mold its Confederate history into a diverse America. Just ask states like South Carolina and Georgia, whose flag and statehouse Confederate imagery has earned them more than 15 minutes of fame.
Mississippi’s problem is that the imagery is everywhere: in the name of its namesake university, in that school’s sports teams, in university email addresses. It’s seemingly inseparable. The universities of Alabama and Tennessee and Georgia haven’t been so tortured.
We admire University of Mississippi administrators for smartly moving that school in the right direction. But the smart guess is that generations from now, Southerners will still call it Ole Miss.