The Legacy of Ida B. Wells and the Struggle for Racial Justice at ‘Ole Miss’

In September 2018, Ed Meek wrote a Facebook post that targeted Black students at the University of Mississippi. Meek, a wealthy white donor to "Ole Miss" implied that the presence of Black students at the university would result in a "3 percent decline in enrollment" and that "real estate values will plummet." He juxtaposed this racially-coded language with images that singled out Black women. The fact that the school of journalism bore his name following a $5.3 million donation transformed his comments into a reflection of the school's attitude as a whole.

Ole Miss has a long history of resistance to the attendance of African American students, dating back to when federal marshals protected James Meredith when he desegregated the school in 1962. Fifty-seven years later, in a state that is 39 percent Black, only 14 percent of Ole Miss’ student population is African American. The university has held unto its symbols of the Confederacy for decades — its mascot was “a white-goateed, cane-toting Southern plantation owner” until 2010, “Old Dixie” was its school song until 2016 because of “tradition” — and continues to grapple with how to deal with monuments to Confederate “heroes” on the campus. Ole Miss’ resistance to change in deference to “heritage” reflects how it prioritizes the histories of some monied people instead of those oppressed by it.

Meek’ s remarks, which implied that the presence of Black women on campus devalued the school, motivated several members of the faculty, staff, and students to sign a petition calling for several changes at the school. The petition requested that Meek’s name be removed from the school and replaced with the name of journalism pioneer and native Mississippian Ida B. Wells.

Ida B. Wells was a pioneer of data journalism who worked relentlessly to shed light on the brutalities of lynching.

She wrote articles and pamphlets about the lawless practice and she criss-crossed the country speaking about these realities, even completing two speaking tours in the United Kingdom. More than simply raising awareness, Wells dispelled the myth that men were lynched for raping white women and exposed how lynching targeted enterprising Black individuals in order to destabilize Black communities. She correctly labeled the practice as a form of domestic terrorism. Wells lived an exemplary life that deserves recognition in her birth state. She was a Civil Rights activist, suffragist, pioneer in social work, community organizer, a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Association of Colored Women.

This year, the city of Chicago, where Wells lived for 35 years, renamed a major street in her honor; a significant monument to her is also in the works in Chicago. Other honors include substantial exhibits at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture as well as the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Wells’ achievements and international leadership on racial justice has been memorialized as far as away Birmingham, England.

The students and faculty at Ole Miss realize that simply changing the name of the school is not enough to fundamentally change the university’s structure and culture. They also suggested the establishment of scholarships and resources for Black women who pursue journalism, as well as the formation of a reparative justice committee to begin the process of removing the Confederate monument from the campus. The goal is to “promote reconciliation and constructive responses to historical wrongs of slavery and segregation.”

According to an administrator at the School of Journalism and New Media, Meek did not mean for his statements to be taken in a negative way and was so hurt by the controversy that he volunteered to remove his name from the school. However, Meeks was unwilling to participate in a public forum about his offensive post. Because the name change suggestion came from outside of the journalism school, the university has been slow to recognize the request.

The author (left) and Garrett Felber (right) at the University of Mississippi (courtesy of the author).

It seems that the school requires incremental steps to educate people about Wells’ work and legacy to become comfortable with the idea of honoring her. To this end, Garrett Felber and a group of faculty, students, and community members organized an Ida B. Wells Teach-In on April 5. Over 100 people attended the event which included readings of Wells’ work, a performance by the gospel choir, a presentation by Hilda Booker Williams, assistant professor of English from Rust College; and an informal talk by myself. At the Teach-In, a journalism school administrator suggested that another educational event about Ida B. Wells be organized for the fall.

Schools around the country are more aggressively confronting their racist past, which benefited from slavery and celebrated some enslavers. These schools are instituting programs and changing names in efforts to implement restorative justice. Georgetown University recently renamed some its buildings after African Americans and is considering a program to benefit the descendants of enslaved people that were sold to raise money for the school. SUNY New Paltz changed the names of six buildings to those of Native Americans to replace enslavers. Still other schools are struggling with how to handle Confederate history, as demonstrated at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where protests followed the toppling of its “Silent Sam” monument and the discussions about its possible relocation on their campus.

Institutions that make substantive changes to recognize the true, diverse, and accurate history of this country and those who built it are doing what is morally right rather than easy.

At Ole Miss, hurt feelings and high levels of contention prohibit meaningful discussion regarding the renaming of the journalism school in honor of Ida B. Wells. In the near future, the school will have no person’s name and will simply be the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media.

In contrast to how other schools make decisions to promote inclusivity, the University of Mississippi has responded to community concerns but has not committed itself to the challenge of racial justice. Instead of addressing the needs and concerns of Black students, Ole Miss has chosen to work within the comfort zones of wealthy white male donors who endorse the status quo of racial hierarchy.

Considering Ole Miss’ past, maybe we should expect resistance to honoring Ida B. Wells — a state university located 30 minutes from her hometown of Holly Springs. The school might be too small for her legacy of equality, justice, truth, and progress. Perhaps an Ida B. Wells Center for Justice is a more appropriate and all-encompassing way to capture and honor her multifaceted contributions to this country.

The Civil War ended 154 years ago, but the University of Mississippi is still steeped in deference toward an old guard and Confederate symbols that are linked to intolerance and hatred. The fact that the school is so reticent about addressing the needs and concerns of those who want to pull the school into the 20th century (even though we are in the 21st century) might make it out of step with other institutions around the country.

About the Author

Michelle Duster is an award-winning author, speaker, and educator. Her professional background includes two decades of writing in advertising and marketing communications, event planning and concert promotion. Since 2008 she has written, edited and contributed to nine books and dozens of articles. In addition, she is active with several committees and boards to develop city, state, and national projects that focus on African American’s and women’s contribution to history. She is the great-granddaughter of Civil Rights icon Ida B. Wells.