The Fight Over a Song at Ole Miss
Posted Nov 12, 2009
When Ole Miss hosts Tennessee Saturday, the school’s band will not play "From Dixie WIth Love," a song that features an incongruous pairing of "Dixie" with the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Why? Because some students and alumni chant, "The South will rise again," at the end of the song.
For Ole Miss’ first-year chancellor, Dan Jones, this chant is unacceptable behavior.
"Here at the University of Mississippi, there must be no doubt that this is a warm and welcoming place for all," Dan Jones wrote Tuesday in a letter to the university community. "We cannot even appear to support those outside our community who advocate a revival of racial segregation. We cannot fail to respond."
So Jones has responded.
And so, "From Dixie With Love" has gone the way of Colonel Reb, the original song Dixie, and the Confederate battle flag, excised from Vaught-Hemingway stadium as offensive relics of a bygone era.
But in his response, Jones has opened another series of debates. What are the obligations of a generation born two or three decades after James Meredith integrated Ole Miss’ campus with regard to racial sensitivity? And, in taking this stand to combat an offensive phrase, are Jones and members of his generation fighting the ghosts of their youth more than they’re fighting a present-day ill? Are Jones and his ilk the true heirs to the Lost Cause mythology for fighting against an evil that doesn’t actually exist?
Unlike Dixie, or Colonel Reb, or the Confederate battle flag, the "South will rise again" addition to the song is a recent incarnation, originated, by most guesses, in the past five years or so.
Let’s add a few years of leeway there and say that the chant began in the neighborhood of the year 2000, the dawn of the 21st Century.
So the chant itself, though the phrase has long since existed, is not connected to a time before the university’s integration and is not an embodiment of past values. If it were a vestige of years past that had existed for decades, this would be a much simpler argument. Traditions of racial intolerance should be left in the past. But if, as it would appear, the chant is of a more recent vintage at football games, how do we assess the relative offensiveness of the language when standing alone the language is not inflammatory?
The Watergate investigations became framed by the single question, "What did the President know and when did he know it?" The question that emerges from the "The South will rise again" imbroglio is: Who is chanting it and why?
After all, isn’t it the intent behind the phrase more than the words that matter? While men and women of generations past might hear this language and think of a monolithic and ethnically divided South rising again, "a revival of segregation" in the chancellor’s words, why can’t the young Ole Miss students be advocating a particular form of regional pride? "The South will rise again," is hardly a universal phrase of racism like an ethnic slur, something students are chanting, knowingly espousing an idea of a racially divided South.
After all, think about this: Today’s Ole Miss freshmen were born in 1991.
The vast majority of these students, then, have grown up in an era where they can’t even remember the O.J. Simpson trial, much less Meredith and the race riots that preceded his enrollment at Ole Miss. Systematic segregation is as remote to them as a world without air conditioning. And if it is, in fact, a chant that evokes regional pride for students, as I believe is likely, what, I would ask, in the student’s mind, distinguishes a chant like this from one that is universally beloved, "SEC, SEC, SEC?"
Does any thinking person really believe that modern day college students watching and rooting their hearts out for a team that is majority African-American are actually, simultaneously, rooting for a return to the era of plantations and slavery? It’s laughable beyond belief.
If, in fact, some fans are doing this, aren’t they likely to be such a clueless and antiquated minority that engaging them in a battle of ideas is self-defeating, relying on the false assumption that all ideas are worthy of debate?
In waging this battle, is Ole Miss allowing the defenders of the Old South to win by engaging a ludicrous idea and considering it worthy of debate? For instance, if a few Ole Miss students decided to form a club that argued against man landing on the moon, would the university really feel compelled to debate them? Ultimately, there is probably nothing anyone at Ole Miss could have done to draw more attention to the chant, than attempt to ban it.
In fact, in a bit of counterintuitive spin, the chancellor would probably have been more successful in eradicating the chant if he’d actually requested that the entire student body do it. And then attempted to lead them in it himself. Because there is nothing less cool on a college campus than doing what an old white man suggests.
All of that, of course, doesn’t even consider how stupid the chant itself is. And that’s probably my primary issue with the chant, not that it’s offensive, just that it’s stupid.
Breaking down the language of the chant, as I wager most students have not, what magical and halcyon "again" do you want to return to? The "again" of a pre-Civil War South? When a few rich plantation owners lived lives of luxury while poor whites and enslaved blacks lifted them to their exalted stature? All while breaking their backs in menial and difficult labors beneath a harsh and unrelenting sun?
Why would anyone in their right mind ever yearn for a return to those days?
Or is it an "again" that exalts the South’s rise from the ashes after the Civil War? And if it is, in fact, that, hasn’t the South already risen? And, more accurately, not "again" as the chant would suggest, but for the very first time. Put it this way, has there ever been another day or era when the South was more ascendant than the present? And if that’s the intent of the chant, to represent Southern pride, wouldn’t, "The South has risen," be more accurate?
Of course, there’s a bigger issue at play too. To what extent are modern generations of Southerners, people like me who only attended integrated schools, held hostage by the conditions that predated our birth? Is it our responsibility to be schooled in the specific racial insults of years past so that we don’t inadvertently make that mistake again? Do young whites and blacks need to hear old stereotypes, maybe for the first time in their lives, solely to be aware that the terms are offensive, should they ever happen upon them in their modern lives, a sort of social inoculation? Are we, as the chancellor would suggest, beholden to link arms with those of older generations and fight the ills that existed in their lives even if they don’t exist in our own?
I think that’s an awfully difficult question.
Meanwhile isn’t it every bit as troubling that the head of a university would cancel the playing of a song because he doesn’t like the way some members of his student body, those chanting "The South will rise again," react to that song? Doesn’t this sound like something that would have happened oh, I don’t know, in a Mississippi of 1957? In a 21st century of open discourse, does stifling that conversation when you disagree with the statements of others really defeat the same American values that you’re seeking to protect?
And here’s one final question, why has every other university in the SEC moved past these racial issues so seamlessly — cite me another SEC school with these controversies in the past decade — while Ole Miss, despite having made bundles of progress, still seems stifled in bygone battles from eras long ago?
While the rest of the SEC seems focused on winning championships, Ole Miss hasn’t hoisted an SEC trophy in football or basketball since 1963.
Is it so coincidental, then, that Ole Miss is still fighting battles from way back in 1963?
But I don’t think so.
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