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Protests at Ole Miss turn to shouts over Confederate flag

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS | 10/26/2015, 8:29 a.m.
An integrated group of at least 200 students and faculty members rallied Friday at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, ...
University of Mississippi students hold signs during a rally calling on the university to remove the Mississippi state flag from university grounds, Friday, in Oxford, Mississippi. Bruce Newman of The Oxford Eagle

JACKSON, Miss. – An integrated group of at least 200 students and faculty members rallied Friday at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, urging the Ole Miss administration to stop flying the state flag that includes the Confederate battle emblem.

About a dozen Confederate flag supporters showed up at the end of the rally, and photos show some wore T-shirts with the logo of an Arkansas-based Ku Klux Klan group, the International Keystone Knights.

Shouting broke out between the two sides, but there was no violence, said Allen Coon of Petal, Mississippi, a White Ole Miss student who wants to remove the flag.

“We made sure that it remained peaceful,” said Coon, 20, an Associated Student Body senator who is sponsoring a take-down-the-flag resolution that the student government will debate next week.

The Mississippi flag and other Old South symbols have come under increased scrutiny since mid-June, when nine Black worshippers were massacred at a church in South Carolina. Police say the killings were racially motivated, and the suspect had posed for photos holding the Confederate battle flag.

The Mississippi flag has had the Confederate battle emblem – a blue X with 13 white stars, over a red field – since 1894. Voters chose to keep the flag in a 2001 election.

Several Mississippi cities and counties have taken down the state flag since the Charleston slayings, and some business groups and university leaders, including those at Ole Miss, have said the banner should be redesigned. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has said if the flag is going to be reconsidered, it should be done in another statewide vote.

The take-down-the-flag rally was sponsored by the campus NAACP. Protesters held signs that said, “Straight Outta Patience” and “Your Heritage is Hate.”

Buka Okoye, the campus NAACP president, told the Associated Press that he respects people who want to honor their ancestors but keeping the Confederate emblem on the state flag is the wrong way to do it.

“It shouldn’t be at the expense of all Mississippians,” said Okoye, a 20-year-old public policy major from Clinton, Mississippi.

The University of Mississippi has three designated “speakers’ corners” on campus, and university spokesman Mitchell Diggs said the rally was at one of them. He said League of the South filed papers with the University Police Department to appear on campus at the time and place where the keep-the-flag protesters appeared, including those in the International Keystone Knights shirts. One held a sign that said, “Secede.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, identifies League of the South as a “neo-secessionist” or “neo-Confederate” group, said Mark Potok, director of the center’s intelligence project.

“They think that the South should secede again in order to create a country that will be ruled by Anglo-Celts which are White people,” Potok said Friday. “They are against interracial relationships or marriages of any kind.”

University of Mississippi administrators have tried to distance the school from Confederate symbols the past two decades. Sports teams are still called the Rebels, but the university several years ago retired the Colonel Rebel mascot – a white-haired old man some thought resembled a plantation owner. The university also banned sticks in the football stadium nearly 20 years ago, which eliminated most Confederate battle flags that fans carried.