An Open Letter to Chancellor Sparks
The University of Mississippi is a community of learning dedicated to nurturing excellence in intellectual inquiry and personal character in an open and diverse environment. As a voluntary member of this community:
I believe in respect for the dignity of each person
I believe in fairness and civility
I believe in personal and professional integrity
I believe in academic honesty
I believe in academic freedom
I believe in good stewardship of our resources
I pledge to uphold these values and encourage others to follow my example.
—University of Mississippi Creed
When I first saw the photo of the three men standing in front of the bullet-ridden Emmett Till sign, their faces gleeful as they posed with guns, I was disgusted and angry — but not surprised. It's not like this is the first racist incident the University of Mississippi has experienced in recent years. In fact, it's such a regular occurrence that I came to expect something like it to happen every year I was there. And, like clockwork, it did.
The first time was in 2012, when I was a sophomore at the University. I was celebrating President Obama's re-election with friends at a house near the Square when I started to receive texts: People burning Obama campaign signs. Trucks driving around with the Confederate flag. Speakers blaring "the South will rise again." I vividly remember the fear I felt as my roommate and I made our way back to our dorm room, afraid someone might somehow recognize us as "liberals" and might turn their anger into violence. Just days later, after writing about the events for the Memphis newspaper, my inbox flooded with death threats, their writers encouraged by the cover their anonymous email addresses provided. "Just take your Obama sticker off your car" was the local police's response.
In 2013, hatred took a different form when students yelled homophobic slurs at a theater performance. And in 2014, a student hung a noose and a confederate flag on the statue of James Meredith, the man who had integrated the University half a century prior.
I take the time to recount these incidents because it points to a culture that, at the very least, permits these events to happen; at the worst, it encourages them. Chancellor Sparks: your statement on the latest racist incident was shameful. Your weak finger-wagging at the perpetrators of this hateful act is a failure of your responsibility as leader of the University. You write, "They do not speak for our institution, and they do not define us." But, in fact, they do. Even though this did not occur on campus, student conduct — both on and off campus — represents the University and its values. The worst part about this is you have the ability to take action; to change the narrative; to make students feel safer. Why you choose not to is beyond me; maybe you're too scared of the powerful alumni of KA, or maybe you have been coached by others to take the easy road. But the easy road does not lead to change.
The image of the men in front of the sign is clearly a violation of the University's creed, as the image shows a lack of respect for the dignity of each person. A spokesperson for the school said, "While the image is offensive, it did not present a violation of university code of conduct." If that's truly the case, then change the code of conduct and tie it directly to the creed. In other words, make the creed actionable, not just empty words meant to placate those seeking social justice. Make it crystal clear that the University of Mississippi has zero tolerance for acts of hatred, racism, and violence carried out by its students. Make it crystal clear that the University unequivocally stands behind its students, professors, and employees of color.
The fear I felt on on election night years ago was real; but I experienced it as a white person. I cannot imagine what it must feel like to walk around the campus and community as a person of color, knowing that men with access to dangerous weapons are empowered by the University's complacency. By not acting decisively in these situations, the University is failing so many of its students, as well as professors and other community members.
When I think back to my time as an undergraduate student at the University of Mississippi, I feel such love for the professors I had and the friendships I developed. But I cannot and will not love the University itself, which continues to provide cover for racists. I cannot love the University that grants physical space on campus — and thus, an endorsement — to a fraternity that reveres its' so-called "spiritual leader" Robert E. Lee and hosts an annual "Old South" event, especially while fraternity row remains white-washed. I cannot love the University that cowers in fear, rather than acts with courage.
An Angry Alumna
P.S. To my peers who were or still are members of KA and have remained silent through all of this: shame on you.