Activists erected a sign in Anniston that heralds the site of a proposed Freedom Riders memorial park. Days later, a vandal burned it. Police were called, but no arrests have been made.
Racism lives at Ole Miss and in Anniston.
If you live in a solidly black-white world — where there is no middle ground — then you believe a tide of racism obviously exists on campus in Oxford, Miss., where James Meredith famously integrated the school in 1962, and Anniston, where a mob burned a Freedom Riders’ bus in 1961.
These facts prove it, you believe.
In a sense, you’d be correct. Racism isn’t extinct. For all the strides we’ve made in the last 50 years, Neanderthals who’d rather promote a dying cause than shake another man’s hand still peek out on occasion from their hiding places.
When they do, people notice.
Particularly when it happens in places like Anniston and Oxford, Miss.
But to cast these towns as modern-day havens for racial unrest is to say we’re guilty by association, that we only see color, not people. To believe that requires you to assume a few hundred Ole Miss students protesting President Obama’s victory with a burned political sign and racial epithets exemplifies the feelings of an entire student body. To believe that means you think the misguided soul who torched the Freedom Riders sign is illustrative of all Annistonians.
Not to mention flat-out wrong, insulting and ridiculous.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel for Ole Miss and its alumni, who, truth be told, have weathered decades of rebuke for its 1960s-era fight against integration and love affair with Lost Cause symbolism of the defeated Confederacy. Ole Miss still calls its sports teams the Rebels — named after students who fought in the Civil War — but it long ago disassociated itself from the Confederate battle flag and, more recently, buried Colonel Reb, the school’s cane-wielding sideline mascot.
Ole Miss, to its credit, has taken tremendous measures to address the darkest parts of its history and move to a better, more inclusive place.
As you’d expect, Tuesday night’s presidential protest — and the national coverage it’s received — has done Ole Miss’ image no good. USA Today carried a story headlined, “Ole Miss protest could damage football program.” A letter to the editor in the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger said, “U.S. chooses Obama; Ole Miss students choose racism.”
In the days since, more than 700 people attended a campus rally for unity, and former Rebel athletes —many of them black — have taken to Twitter to reaffirm their support for their school. “Ole Miss has blessed me with an opportunity to better my life,” tweeted former Ole Miss football standout Michael Oher. “There are problems everywhere, but I will not forget this BLESSING!” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze has used his Twitter account to try to tamp down the negative publicity. (That he’s chided the media for its role in publicizing the protest is asinine.) Former Ole Miss running back Deuce McAllister even told USA Today that he was embarrassed by what happened. “[T]here might be an issue at any school. But because of the university’s past, because of Mississippi’s past, the racial history that it does have, it’s amplified times 12,” he said.
He’s right, of course.
Alabamians know there are those who will always associate cities like Birmingham, Selma and Anniston with racial discord. For them, time has healed little. Ole Miss is no different. Its Google reputation is that of a Deep South school that, like the University of Alabama and others, fought integration with an iron fist. Its lengthy marriage to Confederate symbols only made it worse.
Annistonians responded quickly, and smartly, to the burning of the Freedom Riders sign. Ole Miss did the same after the protest.
To think the Neanderthals will never return is silly. Of course they will. When they do, what matters is how we react: swiftly, peacefully and with passion.
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.