The University of Mississippi colloquially referred to as “Ole Miss” has a complicated history around race relations. The school nickname is the “Rebels, ” and the old school mascot was a slender southern gentleman that resemble a plantation owner. Ole Miss made national news in the 1960’s when a riot broke out after James Meredith was accepted. Most recently a noose and Confederate flag were placed around the neck of his statue.
At the same time, Ole Miss has stopped the flying of Confederate flags, playing of “Dixie,” and replaced the southern gentleman mascot with a black bear. Ole Miss is showing how to make forward racial progress in a very sensitive racial environment. The process is slow, and many in Mississippi are fighting for their Confederate symbols, but the university presses on. Their method is moving the ball forward without causing a violent backlash.
History of Ole Miss Rebel Mascot and Race
The University of Mississippi was founded in 1848. In the school’s charter, the purpose of the school was to educate the white race. The school’s nickname is Ole Miss, which is also what slaves called the master’s wife. The Civil War broke out in 1861, and the student body did not want the citizens of Mississippi to fight without them. The entire class of 150 men formed Company A of the 11th Mississippi regiment. This troop fought with the army of Northern Virginia and was in some of the most famous battles in the eastern theater. The most famous battle was their last. Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg resulted in the annihilation of the troop. This advance was the furthest the Confederacy got into Union territory. The troop was forever known as the University Greys .
The Ole Miss sports teams had no official name and had been known by many names including the Oxfords, the Mighty Mississippians, and the Southerners. A poll of Mississippi sports writers picked the name “Rebels” in 1936. The mascot “Colonel Reb’ was made after that. Colonel Reb is also an award given to the most distinguished man of campus every year. The female equivalent is “Miss Ole Miss. These traditions started in 1940.
Some say the inspiration for the Ole Miss mascot was a blind peanut vendor named James Ivy. Ivy, known around Ole Miss as “Blind Jim.” He was a fixture at football games for sixty years. An on-the-job accident blinded Jim as a teenager. He found work at Ole Miss selling peanuts after the incident. He was known to scream the loudest at the games and is quoted as saying “He never saw Ole Miss lose a game.” The university honored him with a tombstone and the marching band spelling Jim during a halftime in 1964.  The university has never officially connected Blind Jim to the old Mascot. Also, the mascot is white and Jim Ivy was black.
The band first started playing the song “Dixie” in 1948 for the centennial anniversary of the school. The same year the Dixiecrat political party was established. The party was created in response to the executive order to end segregation in the military. The Dixiecrats were officially Democrats, but did not support integration. They were mainly from the South and fought to stop civil rights leaders. They also encouraged the use of Confederate symbols and flew the Confederate battle flag at their national conventions.
In 1962, James Meredith applied and was accepted to the University of Mississippi. However, when the registrar found out about his race, his acceptance was revoked. Meredith was able to sue citing the recent Brown vs. Board case, and a federal order reinstated his admission. When he got to the registrar to sign up for classes the Governor blocked his entrance. A second court order found the Governor in contempt. US Marshals escorted Meredith in the building to register for class.
Once word got out that Meredith had completed registration a violent mob formed on campus. A riot broke out that took 30,000 Federal troops to squelch. The riot left two people dead and three hundred injured. Today there are bullet holes in the student union building from this riot. One of the events that led to the riot were fiery speeches about southern heritage and pride.
The 1970’s were a fascinating time at Ole Miss. In 1975 the first “Colonel Reb” award was given to a black man, Ben Williams. Williams would go on to the NFL after being Ole Miss’s first black football player. The first depiction of Colonel Reb on field or court was in 1979. The mascot would not only perform at Ole Miss games but NBA games as well.
The Colonel Reb mascot has always hurt recruiting at the University of Mississippi. The first attempt to remove the icon happened in 1997. A group of students formed to support Colonel Rebel. The effort led to Ole Miss keeping the mascot. Ole Miss has not won a SEC Championship in football since 1963. Ole Miss has also never won a men’s basketball regular season title.
In 2003, the Associated Student Body Judicial Council decided to retire the Colonel Reb logo. There was a contest to pick a new mascot and a poll for students and faculty to choose a new mascot. The contest and poll got little participation. The school received 2,400 responses from 40,000 eligible to vote.  The school was without an official mascot for seven years.
The same year the “Colonel Reb Foundation” (CRF) was formed. In the About Us section of the website, they claim the removal of the mascot was a unilateral decision by the chancellor and athletic director. The student body and faculty did not get a say in the change. Now many Colonel Reb supporters wear a “Colonel Reb is my mascot” sticker on game-days. CRF also propagated the story of Blind Jim to explain the mascot is not racist. However, having to change Blind Jim’s skin color to white and the school not confirming the story is in itself racist.
In 2010, the students, alumni, fans, and faculty chose the Black Bear as the official mascot. It alludes to Ole Miss’s greatest Alumni William Faulkner. Faulkner comprised a short story named “The Bear.” Also, Mississippi has an endangered Black Bear population. The new mascot will raise awareness on the issues of rebuilding the endangered population. Children that go to the game love the bear according to most reports.
After the reelection of Barack Obama in 2012, a group of 400 students assembled in front of the student union in protest. The crowd lit signs on fire, yelled racial slurs, and two people were arrested. Many have referred to this incident as the “Ole Miss Riot,” however the school has denied it was a riot.
In 2014, Graeme Harris defaced the statue of James Meredith. He placed a noose and the old Georgia state flag that depicted the Confederate flag on the statue. The incident got national attention, and Eric Holder denounced the action. In 2015 Graeme Harris was charged later that year by federal authorities. Harris was a former Ole Miss student.
Plaques were placed on building built by slaves in 2017. The school recognizes its racist history and is making concrete steps to acknowledge it. They also removed the name of a white supremacist governor from a building on campus.
On September 18, 2018, the student body president announced there will be an upcoming vote for a new mascot of a Landshark. The Chancellor of the school Dr. Vitter says the Landshark does not threaten the “Rebels” nickname. The Landsharks originates from defensive football players putting the hand on the forehead after a big play. The Landshark gesture was turned into a mascot that lost to the Bear in the 2003 vote. The Chancellor says the Ole Miss teams will always be referred to as the “Rebels”. The new mascot was announced on October 6, 2017 and will first appear in 2018. The design of the mascot is currently underdevelopment.
How is Ole Miss an example
Ole Miss is working to make concrete steps for racial reconciliation in spite of a complicated history on race. There is racial backlash on campus. However, they never stop working toward making a more inclusive campus. Many other schools and municipalities will go through a similar struggle.
One of the best aspects of this reconciliation is the Col Reb Foundation (CRF). The CRF is providing a constructive, non-violent outlet for people to voice their opinion on the changing of the mascot. Some people will have a deep emotional connection to the old mascot. Transitioning for these people will be difficult and having a support group will prevent these people from acting out.
Ole Miss will never be able to stop individual students from doing despicable things. However, they do support the investigations and convictions are made. There is work on campus to move people past the events. Also, forward racial progress is not stopped by isolated racial incidents.
- ”For Ole Miss Sports “Dixie” is dead by A. Ganucheau http://www.mississippitoday.org
- ”Controversy Over Mascots at Ole Miss” by R. Brown http://www.nytimes.com
- Did University of MS students really riot over election results by. J. Kim http://www.newsfeed.time.com
- Former Ole Miss Student Charged with Placing Noose on. J Meredith Statue by M. Muskal http://www.latimes.com
- Meet Blind Jim Ivy by E. Smith http://www.newsolemiss.edu
- Ole Miss Post Signs to Acknowledge Building Built by Slave Labor by Z. Blay http://www.huffingtonpost.com
- Oxford Olden Days: Blind Jim Ivy, Honorary Dean of Freshman by J. Mayfield http://www.hottytoddy.com
- The University Greys http://www.hottytoddy.com
- Integrating Ole Miss: A transformative Deadly Riot by D. Elliot http://www.npr.org
- Riots of the Desegregation of Ole Miss http://www.history.com
- Ole Miss will be recognizing the campus was built by slaves http://www.college.usatoday.com
- Ole Miss should acknowledge its use of slave labor by A. Coon http://www.thedmonline.com
- Our Shared Racist Tradition by T. Abram http://www.thedmoonline.com
- Rebel Black Bear Selected as the New On-Field Mascot for Ole Miss Rebels http://www.mascot.olemiss.edu
- Ole Miss without a mascot http://www.msnewsnow.com
- “About Us” http://www.colonelreb.org
- Ole Miss to vote on Landshark as new Mascot http://www.usatoday.com
- The Ole Miss Rebels are changing their mascot again, this time from the Black Bear to a Landshark by J. Kirk http://www.sbnation.com
- Ole Miss names new mascot: Landsharks by D. Royer http://www.wreg.com