JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The University of Mississippi will revise a plaque beside a Confederate monument on its Oxford campus to add more information about the Civil War and slavery, Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said Friday.
In a letter to students, faculty and alumni, Vitter also said that even as the university continues efforts to improve racial diversity, it will retain its nickname Ole Miss and its mascot, the Rebels. Critics see the name and mascot as divisive reminders of the Old South, while supporters see them as affectionate symbols of school spirit.
His predecessor as chancellor, Dan Jones, announced in 2014 that Ole Miss would provide historical context for some symbols and buildings on a campus that's home to a Confederate cemetery.
The university was founded in 1848, and the Confederate soldier statue has stood for generations in a parklike area near the main administrative building. A plaque to add historical context was put by the statue earlier this year, but the campus NAACP said it failed to mention slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Vitter acknowledged revisions are being made in response to criticism.
The first plaque said the statue was dedicated by local citizens in 1906 and was one of many monuments built across the South as aging Civil War veterans were dying. It also mentioned the violence that erupted in 1962 by white people opposing the court-ordered admission of James Meredith as the first black student at Ole Miss.
"It was also at this statue that a local minister implored the mob to disperse and allow James Meredith to exercise his rights as an American citizen," the plaque said.
It continued, "On the morning after that long night, Meredith was admitted to the University and graduated in August 1963."
The NAACP said there's no need to mention "our university's fearless activist, James Meredith" to provide context for the Confederate statue.
Vitter, who's in his first year as chancellor, said a committee wrote the new plaque and he approved the wording. It retains the explanation that memorial associations across the South built Confederate monuments.
"These monuments were often used to promote an ideology known as the 'Lost Cause,' which claimed that the Confederacy had been established to defend states' rights and that slavery was not the principal cause of the Civil War," it will say.
It will also note that local residents dedicated the statue, with the university's approval, in 1906.
"Although the monument was created to honor the sacrifice of local Confederate soldiers, it must also remind us that the defeat of the Confederacy actually meant freedom for millions of people. On the evening of September 30, 1962, this statue was a rallying point for opponents of integration."
A report Jones issued about diversity efforts in 2014 said the university would continue calling itself Ole Miss but should consider whether to limit the nickname's use to the context of athletics and school spirit, favoring the more formal University of Mississippi for academics. The nickname arose from a university yearbook contest in the late 1800s, but the phrase "Ole Miss" originally was a name that slaves used to refer to a plantation owner's wife.
Although teams are still called the Rebels, a sideline mascot called Colonel Reb was retired several years ago. Vitter said Friday that some people had expressed concerns the nicknames would disappear.
"I can assure you that we will continue to use the terms Ole Miss and Rebels as endearing nicknames for the university," Vitter wrote. "Data show that the term Ole Miss is broadly viewed as one of connection and affection, with strongly positive national (and international) recognition. It is one of the more known and respected (and frankly, envied) college brands."
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