JACKSON Miss. (Reuters) - The University of Mississippi’s plan to further move past its Confederate ties by renaming campus streets and easing use of the “Ole Miss” nickname has angered some critics, who accuse the school of a wholesale erasure of the state’s history.
The state’s flagship university last week said its plans include changing the name of its Confederate Drive to Chapel Lane, creating the position of vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion, and restricting the use of “Ole Miss” to sports and spirit activities instead of academics.
The school said those actions were needed to promote greater tolerance and diversity as it continues to struggle to overcome a tumultuous past with race relations. The admission in 1962 of its first black student, James Meredith, was met with fierce protests that left two dead and helped spark the U.S. civil rights movement.
Although people have referred to the university as “Ole Miss” for decades, some contend it originated as a term for plantation owners’ wives and harkens back to slave days.
“Our unique history regarding race provides not only a larger responsibility for providing leadership on race issues, but also a large opportunity - one we should, and will, embrace,” Chancellor Dan Jones wrote in report issued last week.
Opponents of the plan say it serves only to placate a small number of people at the expense of the state’s history. They claim that those wishing to whitewash the past misunderstand what really happened.
Debbie Sidle, whose two sons attended the school, is helping organize a protest march expected to draw dozens of supporters on Saturday in Oxford, home to the 170-year-old university’s main campus.
She said the Civil War was more about states’ rights than slavery and that the Confederate flag represents her Southern ancestors, not racism.
“How can you take a Confederate school built by Confederates in a Confederate state and say you’re not Confederate?” Sidle said. “It’s like my dog trying to dress up my cat.”
The University of Mississippi previously banned Confederate flags from its athletic events and replaced its iconic Colonel Reb mascot with a black bear.
It also erected a statue of Meredith, which in February was vandalized by students who placed a noose around its neck, behavior for which they were disciplined.
A spokesman for the university said the chancellor does not intend to distance the school from its heritage in the push to become a more welcoming place for the 24 percent of minority students at the Oxford campus, up from 16 percent a decade ago.
“He feels there is a place for it along with a commitment to diversity and inclusion,” said spokesman Danny Blanton. “We will always be the Ole Miss Rebels, and our alumni and friends needed to be assured of that.”
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Gunna Dickson