NAACP Students Win Award for Helping Retire State Flag at Ole Miss
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NAACP member Jaylon Martin leads "Hidden History" tour at Ole Miss.
Sandra Knispel

The student chapter of the NAACP at the University of Mississippi is not happy with the plaque that was installed next to the Confederate Soldier Monument on campus on Monday. They argue that it omits slavery as the core issue of the Civil War. As Ole Miss continues to retire or put into context visible signs of its Confederate past, this group of students has picked up a prestigious national award for being so-called “agents of change.”

You may recall the scene on campus last October that quickly went viral: A rally organized by the University of Mississippi’s NAACP against flying the state flag drew a small group of white supremacists onto campus. The racists’ insults and Confederate flags were answered by a resounding chorus of students:

“Your heritage is hate, your heritage is hate.”

 ”When I saw them I literally had this smirk on my face [that] I have now,” says a smiling Buka Okoye, who is the president of the university’s NAACP chapter.

“It was just… We won. There’s nothing you can possibly do now to tell us otherwise,” Okoye says. "Like the hate that we have been talking about the entire time. Once that, you know, soundbite came out with the ‘Black lives don’t matter’ - like if we don’t win after this I really will have some qualms about this university because this — this was it!” 

Helped by the strong support of the university’s student, staff, and faculty senates, an alliance of minority groups, and ultimately a sympathetic administration — the state flag came down. Spurred into action by the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, last June, it was the NAACP on campus that got the ball rolling … and in due course attracted national attention.

“They are activists and agents of change who are symbols of our fight against oppression. They are spokesmen and women for a new generation,” says Roslyn Brock, the chair of the NAACP National Board of Directors, speaking during the live television broadcast of the Image Awards in Pasadena, California. The University of Mississippi group of students is one of eight recipients of this year’s prestigious NAACP Chairman’s Award.

”In a state that has long represented the bigotry of the past, the University of Mississippi NAACP college chapter led the fight to remove the flag from campus grounds.. ASB take it down! What do we want? Justice!”

Okoye was among the small group of students who flew to California to accept the award.

“The culture in the university glorifies white supremacy and we need to do a meaningful change when we address white supremacy and when we address the Confederacy in general and be very critical of that history because that will not be the last time, you know, we have a racial incident on that campus.”

Next on the agenda is Vardman Hall, says the 21-year-old Public Policy Major from Clinton. 

”We definitely want to see the name of Vardman changed,” Okoye says. "This was a senator who was staunchly a white supremacist. I mean the way he spoke against black people. We are at an educational institution with the guy who advocated for us not to have this kind of education in the first place.” 

But retiring divisive symbols may not be enough. 

“So we can continue taking the symbols down and the icons of the Confederacy down but none of that really matters if the people’s perspective don’t change,” says Tysianna Marino, also an Ole Miss Public Policy Major, who is the vice chair of the campus NAACP chapter.

“This semester we are focusing a lot on educating people, having more dialogues, more discussion, more open panels because, as I’ve said, if you don’t change people’s mind then nothing really change,” Marino says. 

That’s why the group started a new walking tour on campus.

[nat sound] “Now first off, we are going to come into the Lyceum….These bricks were handcrafted by the slaves who worked here at the university. If you look closer you can see some of the fingerprints — and you can all get closer and try look— see some of the fingerprints of some of the enslaved on the bricks.” 

Leading a group of about two dozen students on a recent sunny afternoon is Jaylon Martin, another NAACP chapter member. 

“The purpose of this Hidden History Tour is to complicate the narrative surrounding Ole Miss. We want to highlight the contributions of black people to this university, Martin explains.”

This voice carries loud and clear on campus and beyond. This Thursday, the group is expected to meet with the Chancellor to discuss its opposition to the new plaque next to the Confederate Monument on campus. It’s a voice that may sound radical at times, but one that the group says won’t be ignored or silenced.