OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — The University of Mississippi's interim chancellor watched on a rainy morning as three Ole Miss police officers lowered the Mississippi state flag — which shows the Confederate battle emblem in the upper left-hand corner — for the last time.
In taking down the flag Monday, the university removes what officials had decided was a symbol that sent a harmful message in this age of diversity.
"The flag had become a point of contention," interim chancellor Morris Stocks told The Associated Press, explaining why he decided the university should take down the 121-year-old banner.
Stocks said he had met with other university leaders Friday and then again for about three hours Sunday, after student, faculty and staff representatives passed resolutions last week calling for the flag to go. Opponents of the flag say it's a symbol of slavery and racial oppression.
"We have a pretty large number of students and faculty who consistently and regularly remind us that our state flag is not a welcoming symbol," Stocks said.
Stocks may defang the issue for his likely successor, University of Kansas Provost Jeffrey Vitter. Vitter, the brother of a Republican U.S senator from Louisiana, is scheduled to interview Wednesday and Thursday. If all goes well, the state College Board is likely to hire him Thursday.
Stocks said he mentioned the flag to Vitter when the chancellor candidate visited Oxford on Saturday to watch Ole Miss beat Texas A&M University in football.
"I told him the issue was bubbling and we were preparing a summary of the information for him," Stocks said. He said he wasn't trying to shield Vitter from a difficult decision, just trying to end the campus contention.
The university acted in the Monday morning gloom without announcing its plans. There were no protesters in the wooded circle, guarded at the opposite end from the Lyceum by a statue of a saluting Confederate soldier. Stocks said the flag was sent to university archives and will be displayed in the library alongside the resolutions requesting its removal.
There was no sign of protest on campus Monday. Brittney Jackson, a freshman nursing major from Jackson, said the flag's removal "is something that should have already happened."
"Our state flag has a symbol on it that divides us, therefore our state flag divides us," Jackson said.
Among the student senators who tried to keep the flag on campus is Andrew Soper, a business major from Tupelo. Soper said he's not opposed to a redesign, but said Ole Miss should respect the current flag.
"I don't think we should hide our state flag as it's one that currently represents the state of Mississippi," he said.
An Oct. 16 remove-the-flag rally by the campus chapter of the NAACP had brought an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan. Two Klan members were later arrested on weapons charges by campus police after protesting Thursday's faculty senate vote against the flag. An FBI agent's sworn statement said police found two shotguns, one loaded, and a "Black Lives Don't Matter" sign in the men's pickup truck. Each man now faces a federal charge of possessing a firearm in a school zone.
Students forced the flag issue as the governor and most state lawmakers seek re-election on Nov. 3, and many politicians have avoided definitive 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.
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 symbol.
Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn said months ago that it's time to change the flag, but his fellow Republican, Gov. Phil Bryant, says Mississippi voters should again decide the flag's future.
"I think college students react a lot emotionally," the governor said after the student senate vote.
He held his ground 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. Stocks said Ole Miss lawyers determined state universities aren't required to fly the state flag.
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.
Athletic director Ross Bjork, who has said the flag makes recruiting more difficult, was among those who met with Stocks. "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."
Wagster Pettus reported from Jackson. David Brandt in Oxford contributed to this report.