OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — The University of Mississippi quietly pulled down the state flag on Monday, deciding that the 121-year-old banner's Confederate battle emblem sends a harmful message in this age of diversity.
Acting under the order of Interim Chancellor Morris Stocks, three campus police officers furled the flag before most students were awake, taking it down from a circle of honor between the white-columned administration building and a marble statue of a saluting Confederate soldier.
A group of university leaders met Sunday night and agreed to take it down, days after the student and faculty senates urged its removal from the Oxford campus, a bastion for Southern elites since its founding in 1848.
"Because the flag remains Mississippi's official banner, this was a hard decision. I understand the flag represents tradition and honor to some. But to others, the flag means that some members of the Ole Miss family are not welcomed or valued," Stocks said in a statement.
The banner will be put on display in the university's archives, Stocks told The Associated Press.
The flag had flown for years in the Lyceum circle, where deadly white riots broke out in 1962, when James Meredith enrolled as the university's first black student, under a federal court order and with the protection of U.S. marshals.
A half-century later, federal forces were again keeping close watch on the Ku Klux Klan as an Oct. 16 remove-the-flag rally by the campus chapter of the NAACP proved to be the catalyst for change.
Two Klan members who protested Thursday's faculty senate vote were arrested on state weapons charges after campus police found shotguns and a "Black Lives Don't Matter" sign in their pickup truck, according to an FBI agent's sworn statement. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, Chad Lamar, said each man now faces a federal charge of possessing a firearm in a school zone. Federal court records show one of the guns was loaded. At least one of the men had also protested the NAACP rally.
Today's students forced the flag issue as the governor and most state lawmakers seek re-election on Nov. 3, and many politicians have avoided staking positions. Not so Chris McDaniel, a state senator who lost a contentious Republican primary to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014, and insisted that "Ole Miss should fly it, as long as they remain a publicly funded university."
"Universities are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas, not cocoons designed for coddling the feelings of the perpetually offended," the tea party favorite posted Monday on his Facebook page.
There was no sign of protest on campus Monday.
"It needed to be removed," said Ellie Bond, an international studies major from Flowood, Mississippi, who wore a T-shirt with a flag that preceded Mississippi's current banner, featuring a magnolia tree rather than the battle flag.
Among the student senators who tried to keep the flag on campus is Andrew Soper, a business major from Tupelo. He said he's not opposed to a redesign, but said, "I think the state flag is a state issue, not a university issue."
Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said months ago that it's time to change the flag, but his fellow Republican, Gov. Phil Bryant, declined to call a special legislative session to debate it and said Mississippians themselves should to decide the flag's future.
Since 1894, the Mississippi flag has had the Confederate battle emblem in its upper left corner — a blue X with 13 white stars, over a field of red. State voters decided in 2001 to keep it there, the last state flag in the nation to incorporate the divisive symbol.
"I think college students react a lot emotionally," the governor said after the student senate vote.
He held his ground on Monday.
"Mississippians overwhelmingly voted in 2001 to adopt the current Mississippi state flag. I believe publicly funded institutions should respect the law as it is written today. It clearly states 'The state flag shall receive all the respect and ceremonious etiquette given the American flag,'" Bryant said in a statement.
The law Bryant cited makes displaying the flag optional, not mandatory, at public buildings.
The University of Mississippi has struggled with Old South symbolism for decades. Sports teams remain the Rebels, but the Colonel Rebel mascot was retired, and fans mostly stopped waving Confederate battle flags after sticks were banned in the stadium.
Chancellor Dan Jones, who sought to make the campus more racially inclusive, was ousted in March, and many of his supporters suspected he was too liberal on race for the trustees, who are appointed by the governor. Trustees insisted that he had to go because he resisted financial changes they wanted at the university's hospital.
The flag came down just ahead of Thursday's campus visit by the board's choice to succeed Jones — University of Kansas Provost Jeffrey Vitter — who told the AP in an interview last week that he is committed to diversity, but offered no opinion on the flag.
Athletic director Ross Bjork, who has said the flag makes recruiting more difficult, was among those who met with the interim chancellor during the weekend. "I'm just proud our university can take a stand like this. It's the right thing to do. It helps move us forward," Bjork said.
Football coach Hugh Freeze said removing the flag "is the right thing for this university, and hopefully our state also will follow suit."
"I think it represents adequately our core values of what we want to be."
Jeff Amy and David Brandt reported from Oxford, and Emily Wagster Pettus reported from Jackson. Contact them at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus, www.twitter.com/davidbrandtAP and http://twitter.com/jeffamy.