Ole Miss racial incidents have many feeling uneasy
OXFORD, Mississippi (CNN) — A noose was hung around the neck of a statue of a famous civil rights figure at the University of Mississippi.
Alcohol and racial slurs were hurled at a black student as she walked near the campus.
These two recent, racially charged incidents have some wondering if the school affectionately called Ole Miss is still stuck in the old days. Some alumni say the incidents do not reflect the true character of their alma mater.
In the meantime, the FBI is getting involved in one of the incidents.
Special Agent Daniel McMullen on Friday said the bureau, along with university police, will expand the investigation to determine whether any federal laws were broken in the incident Sunday, when a noose and a flag bearing a Confederate symbol were found placed on the statue of James Meredith.
And an attorney for one of the three students sought for questioning in the statue incident said Friday there is video evidence that absolves his client.
Ken Coghlan said according to law enforcement officials he spoke with, his client is not shown in a video recording of the incident, which occurred Sunday.
“He did not touch the statue. He was not near the statue. He didn’t have any involvement with putting anything on the statue,” Coghlan said.
“I’m extremely distressed and worried my client is being libeled by the university,” the attorney said.
Coghlan said his client has been “ruled out” by the university and has no plans to talk to university police at this time. A lawyer for another of the three accused declined comment Saturday.
Danny Blanton, director of public relations for Ole Miss, said he is not aware of any video of the incident.
In a phone interview, Lee Tyner, the general counsel for Ole Miss, said those behind the act have been identified.
“We believe the three folks we’ve identified and provided information to prosecutors about were involved” in the desecration of the statue, he said.
The three 19-year-olds, whose identities have not been released by police, are from Georgia and are freshmen at Ole Miss, according to a statement from the university’s chief of police, Calvin Sellers.
Sellers said university police “had gathered enough evidence by late Wednesday to bring charges through the student judicial process against two of the students, and both state and federal authorities were working in close coordination to determine whether criminal charges were applicable,” the statement said.
The students were set to appear for questioning with university police Thursday, but never showed up, according to the statement.
Racial slurs alleged
In another reported incident involving an Ole Miss student, senior Kiesha Reeves reported to police that Monday, someone threw alcohol at her from a moving car while shouting racial slurs.
Reeves, who is African-American, said she was still emotionally affected by what happened.
Police are investigating the incident, which occurred a few miles off campus at a residential complex that houses mostly Ole Miss students.
“It’s unclear at this time if the incident is related to the incident last Sunday on campus,” Oxford Deputy Police Chief James Owens said. “This is pretty unusual. This is a college town. This doesn’t usually happen here.”
James Meredith became the first black student admitted to Ole Miss in 1962. And it took a Supreme Court ruling and federal police presence to ensure his admittance.
Meredith, 80, declined to speak about the noose incident. But his wife said she was not surprised that it happened.
“I’m shocked but not surprised by what happened,” Judy Meredith said. “I’m surprised something didn’t happen to the statue earlier.”
Meredith’s son, John, added, “Obviously there is a little bit of work left to do in terms of our social fabric.
“My father always has said it’s not a matter of civil rights, it is a matter of citizenship.”
Ironically, James Meredith has said he is no fan of the statue, that he disapproves of it on biblical grounds and believes it should be removed from campus.
“It’s a false idol, and it’s an insult not only to God, it’s an insult to me,” he said in an interview with The New York Times.
Fraternity to suspend Ole Miss chapter
On Friday, the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity said it was “embarrassed” to learn the three suspects were members of its organization.
Not only would it expel the three students, the fraternity said, it was going to indefinitely suspend the whole Ole Miss chapter.
“For this to occur in 2014 is an insult to the legacy of James Meredith, The University of Mississippi community, and the SigEp alumni who fought for racial equality in the late 1950s,” the fraternity said in a statement.
Students who spoke with CNN affiliate WMC shared similar sentiments:
“I just feel like whoever did that had to be completely ignorant to the impact that he had on this campus to deface school property and such a monumental statue like that,” sophomore Raven Lyles said.
“I think it’s absolutely terrible what they did,” freshman John Choat said. “I think they should pay for it.”
“To be honest, we haven’t come as far as we think we’ve come,” said another student, Bryston Tucker.
Tuohy: Isolated “stupidity” is to blame
A few well-known university alums weighed in on the furor. NFL star Michael Oher, who played for the Ole Miss Rebels and was made famous after his story inspired the movie “The Blind Side,” took to Twitter on Monday to share his feelings.
“Can’t believe they are still doing stuff like that at Ole Miss,” he tweeted. “Really a shame!!”
Leigh Anne Tuohy, the Ole Miss alumna who adopted Oher after she and her husband took him into their home at the age of 16, said of the statue’s defacing, “I tell people all the time, I wish there was a cure for cancer (and) heart disease, but more so stupidity.”
However, she said, the university “has gotten pigeonholed … as being a racist school, and that is anything but the truth.”
“The truth of the matter is I had a black child at Ole Miss and a white child at Ole Miss,” Tuohy said, “and it was a wonderful experience.”
Shay Hodge, a former Rebels wide receiver and teammate of Oher, said “every school” has its racists. But Hodge, who also is African-American says he “always felt welcomed” at Ole Miss.
Racism “happens in every campus, in every high school, in every community,” Hodge said. “Because it is not just white people towards blacks, it is blacks towards whites, whites towards Mexicans …”
By Nick Valencia and Marlena Baldacci
CNN’s Lateef Mungin and Elwyn Lopez contributed to this report.