Case Study: Confederate Monument – University of Mississippi (‘Ole Miss’), Oxford, Mississippi, USA
The 30-foot monument dedicated to Confederate soldiers from Lafayette County, Mississippi was erected in 1906 at the administrative campus entrance. In March 2016, a reinterpretation plaque was added beneath the monument. However, subsequent protests challenged the content of the plaque, which was revised shortly afterwards in June the same year. In 2018, new protests then began over the prominent location of the statue. The momentum of these protests grew, supported by detailed research on the statue. Ultimately a decision was taken that a more suitable location for the statue would be a Confederate cemetery in a remote part of the campus grounds. It was relocated there in July 2020.
- Site and type of structure: Monument of Confederate Soldier
- Location: Entrance of University of Mississippi (Ole Miss), Oxford, Mississippi
- Country: USA
- Legal protection: Restrictions in state law
The monument of a Confederate soldier was erected in 1906 at the main entrance to the University of Mississippi campus, beside its administration building.
The statue has become a focal point for numerous protests since the Civil Rights period. During the desegregation riot at the University in 1962, opponents of integration fled to the statue after U.S. Marshalls fired tear gas in an effort to disperse them. Several decades on, it became contested by students and faculty staff in 2014-2015, who felt aggrieved that the statue commemorated soldiers that fought to uphold American slavery during the Civil War of 1861-1865.
The context for reinterpretation
In the Civil War, almost the entire student body of 130 enlisted in the Confederate Army, leaving their books outside the university entrance. In 1906, the 30-foot statue dedicated to Confederate soldiers from Lafayette County, Mississippi was erected at that spot, by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The University was racially desegregated in 1962, with the enrolment of the first African American student, James Meredith, a process that was challenged and subsequently enforced by Federal troops. The statue again became a site of protest and counter-protest at this time. The scale and prominence of the statue has also made it a lightning rod for broader state and national debates about Confederate monuments and memorials, particularly in the last six years.
Assessment of options
A 2014 action plan put forward by the University had proposed to provide historical context to some of the University’s Confederate symbols throughout the campus. This had proposed to “offer more history, putting the past into context” and to do so “without attempts to erase history, even some difficult history.”
Following ongoing pressure from students opposed to the statues, this then led to the installation of a contextual reinterpretation plaque in March 2016, written and commissioned by a small, private committee.
Critics of the process, however, forced the administration to revise the plaque a few months later in June 2016. Later that same summer, a Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on History and Context was also established to recommend additional historic sites on campus that were in need of contextualisation and to oversee the design of reinterpretation content.
The committee was prohibited by the Chancellor from discussing the relocation of the statue, though this was not public information.
Two years later, in 2018, new student campaigns then began for the relocation of the statue and steadily gained momentum, with calls to move the monument to a nearby Confederate cemetery, on a remote part of campus.
Mississippi Code 55-15-81, a law that state legislators passed with bi-partisan support in 2004, states that any monument honouring the “War Between the States” erected on public property cannot be “relocated, removed, disturbed, altered, renamed or rededicated.” However, it also states that “the governing body may move a memorial to a more suitable location if it is determined that the location is more appropriate to displaying the monument.” The Deputy Attorney General stated in 2017 that Confederate monuments could be relocated under the code as long as they remain on ‘similar public property’. These ambiguities were a central focus of debate, about which options were possible and lawful.
There was debate about which governing body or bodies had the authority to determine the outcome. An external body, the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) claimed jurisdiction, so that relocation would be possible on their approval of proposals made by the Chancellor of the University. Some state legislators contested this claim, but this was the process that was followed.
What was done and who was involved?
Reinterpretation began in March 2016, when a plaque was ordered and installed, as advised by a small, private committee at the University.
The wording of the first plaque read:
As Confederate veterans were passing from the scene in increasing numbers, memorial associations built monuments in their memory all across the south. This monument was dedicated by citizens of Oxford and Lafayette County in 1906. On the evening of September 30, 1962, the statue was a rallying point where a rebellious mob gathered to prevent the admission of the University's first African Student. it was also at this statue where a local minister implored the mob to disperse and allow James Meredith to exercise his rights as an American Citizen. On the Morning After that long night Meredith was admitted to the University and graduated in August 1963. This historic structure is a reminder of the University's past and of its current and ongoing commitment to open its hallowed halls to all who seek truth and knowledge and wisdom
This first plaque was commissioned and erected, during a spring break (2016), with little if any prior notice or communication. Quickly afterwards, there was criticism raised, in part highlighting imbalanced focus on events in 1962-63, rather than the erection of the monument itself in 1906. After criticism of the faculty and student protests, the University accepted that there had been little student or faculty awareness of the committee, insufficient opportunity for stakeholders to input on the text, and that the wording should be changed.
Academics at the University of Mississippi undertook new detailed research over the next two months, which uncovered new sources and material, particularly about the motives and public arguments of those who put the statue up in 1906. The new Chancellor of the University then commissioned a new, second plaque in June 2016.
Wording of the second plaque:
As Confederate veterans were dying in increasing numbers, memorial associations across the South built monuments in their memory. These monuments were often used to promote an ideology known as the 'Lost Cause', which claimed that the Confederacy had been established to defend states' rights and that slavery was not the principal cause of the Civil War. Residents of Oxford and Lafayette County dedicated this statue, approved by the University, in 1906. Although the monument was created to honor the sacrifice of local Confederate soldiers, it must also remind us that the defeat of the Confederacy actually meant freedom for millions of people. On the evening of September 30, 1962, the statue was a rallying point for opponents of integration. This historic statue is a reminder of the University's divisive past. Today the University of Mississippi draws from that past a continuing commitment to open its hallowed halls to all those who seek truth, knowledge and wisdom.
In March 2019, the Associated Student Body voted unanimously for the relocation of the monument, to a less prominent location on campus, the Confederate cemetery.
This led the Graduate Student Council, the Staff Council and the Faculty Senate to pass similar resolutions. “I know there have been lots of questions about whether we are trying to erase history, and that is simply not our goal. Our goal is to move history to a place where it is contextually appropriate so that we can begin to have conversations without yelling at each other and (without) having this beacon of conflict in the center of our campus”, said one of the proponents of relocation.
State politicians were actively involved, from opposing perspectives.
Between April and August 2019 the University engaged with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, securing a permit for the proposed relocation plan. But in January 2020, the IHL sought to postpone a decision, seeking more information on broader contextualisation efforts, and recommending plans be expanded to develop the cemetery, for example by paving a walkway to the graveyard, creating a memorial to Black soldiers that served in the Civil War and, most importantly, installing new headstones for fallen Confederate servicepeople.
No decision had been made when the COVID pandemic began, reducing the focus on the empty campus. However, in May 2020, the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, coupled with criticism about the plans to aggrandise the Confederate cemetery, led the University authorities to move the decision up the agenda. This directly led to the vote taken by the IHL and the subsequent relocation of the statue in July 2020, along with its 2016 reinterpretation plaque.
Campaigns and counter-campaigns about the statue reflect a polarisation of views. This was made more challenging by a strong consensus on campus, for reinterpretation and relocation, but also a much more contested debate in wider state politics and public discourse, which was open to reinterpretation but sceptical about relocation. The University rapidly accepted criticism of the absence of a process of consultation about the March 2016 plaque. There was greater engagement with the second, redrafted plaque erected in June. However, the reinterpretation did not address the primary focus of challenges to the statue, which were based on its size and the prominence of its location.
In February 2019, there were protests by pro-Confederacy groups, Confederate 901 and the Hiwaymen, marching to the statue, with banners saying ‘Protect Our Heritage’. These were met by a large counter-protest, whose signs included ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. This was tense, with concerns about safety and violence, but passed peacefully. The University’s men’s basketball team ‘took the knee’ during the national anthem at a game as a direct response to the pro-Confederate protest, which increased awareness of the campaign for relocation and mobilised wider support from University students.
Lessons and Insights
This reinterpretation took place in the context of a deepening polarisation in national and state politics on issues of race and contested heritage, and discourse around the contextualisation of the statue did more to mirror rather than transcend this polarisation.
At the outset, the principle of an additive rather than subtractive approach was proposed. But this was not a view shared by all stakeholders. Though students campaigned for the statue’s relocation to the cemetery, the thrust of campus campaigning was for the removal of the statue from the campus. The relocation call was largely a pragmatic response to legal constraints, or insufficient political support to go further.
Academic research was rigorous, however it tended to be committed to a position in the public argument. The research uncovered little-known facts, particularly about the public arguments made by those who erected the statue at the time. The 1906 unveiling speech was seen as a crucial piece of historical evidence in a contested argument about the motives and meaning of erecting the statue, linking the statue directly with racist language about the supposed role of the Confederacy in ‘preserving Anglo-Saxon civilisation’.
Because there was one dominant perspective on campus, and a contrasting majority perspective among political power-brokers in the state, there were largely two separate spheres of discussion. In a state with strongly held, and polarised views, there were relatively few spaces of dialogue or perspective-taking.
- Reinterpretation initiatives should not be rushed. Adequate time is needed to build a clear rationale for interpretation and to consult relevant stakeholders
- Rigorous historic research is needed to fully set out the origins of monuments, as set out in Historic England advice, which can contribute to the discussion about the historic and current meanings and interpretations of these monuments
- Where strongly held, opposing views exist between important stakeholders regarding a contested history asset or site, impartial and systemised consultation processes can help to engage different groups across divides