REBEL YELL

Between Ole Miss and Me

Stuart Stevens reflects on the troubled history of his local college—and the Confederate flag he once adored.

Tannen Maury/AP

I grew up cheering for the Confederate flag. If it was Saturday and football season, that meant the Ole Miss Rebels were playing and every Friday night before bed, I’d pray for a Rebel victory.

On those Saturdays down South, the Rebels didn’t take the field, they assaulted it like the avenging warriors of Picket’s Charge (where 85 percent of the University of Mississippi regiment fell dead or wounded.) The university mascot, Colonel Reb, led the team out with raised sword and we fans in the stadium, all white back then, would stand and wave our Confederate flags happily and madly as the all white team, usually one of the best in the nation, prepared for victory.

At halftime, the Ole Miss band paraded in Confederate battle gray uniforms and at just the right moment, unrolled what was billed as the world’s largest Confederate flag. (I always wondered who had the second-largest Confederate flag.) The highlight of every game was the band’s mournful rendition of “Dixie” that always ended with fans standing and chanting, “The South shall rise again.”

On Sept. 28, 1962, not far from my house near Jackson’s Memorial Stadium, at the halftime of the Ole Miss versus Kentucky game, Gov. Ross Barnett gave a fiery speech urging resistance to the federal government’s forced integration of the University of Mississippi. It was the first time my dad and I didn’t stay until the end of a Rebel game. After Barnett’s speech, he led us back home, sad and disgusted.

The Rebels beat Kentucky and the next night two men died in the Ole Miss riots. A few weeks later the United States almost went to war over Russian missiles in Cuba but for me, 1962 will always be the year Ole Miss finished as the undefeated national champions: a perfect season in a most imperfect year.

I can’t remember exactly when I realized that the Confederate flag was something more than the team flag of my beloved Ole Miss Rebels. Looking back, I now understand why when I went away to summer camp, my mother would take down the Confederate flag I’d pin on my wall next to pictures of my favorite Rebel players. I had an Ole Miss hat, sort of a cross between a baseball hat and a newsboy cap that I wore to bed most nights. It had a Confederate flag on it next to Colonel Reb. I always wanted to wear that hat to school but somehow I never made it out of the house with it.

On Monday, Oct. 26, the University of Mississippi lowered the state flag of Mississippi, which includes the Confederate battle flag in its design. It will not be raised again until the state officially drops the Confederate imagery. This followed a 33-15 vote of the Student Senate directing the university to lower the flag. Ole Miss had previously banned the Confederate flag at games and Colonel Reb is no longer the mascot. (Although no one seems to know it, a black bear has been selected as a replacement in homage to Faulkner’s short story The Bear.)

On Saturdays with a home game, the team enters the stadium down the Walk of Champions through the Grove, the leafy heart of the campus where the last battle of the Civil War was fought that September night in 1962. The once all-white team is now more black than white and it is a powerful moment to see them mobbed by adoring fans as they pass the statue commemorating the Confederate dead.

When I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, Fourth of July celebrations were still spoken of as the day Gettysburg was lost and Vicksburg fell. In my living room is a wooden chest my great-great-aunt carried with her into the caves of Vicksburg during the siege. She carved a precise mark in the sturdy oak interior for every day she spent in the caves. The last was July 4, 1864.

Like many white Southerners, I was formed in a world guided by two great contradictory impulses: be proud of this place we call home but understand that something terrible happened here and “our” defeat was essential.

This, perhaps more than anything, defined for generations what it was to be a white Southerner: to know the world celebrated your defeat and to join in that celebration was required admission into the company of civilized men and women.

No one in the North thinks much about the Civil War, which is the ultimate humiliation for the South. To win a war is to be free to move on. To be conquered is to live with the consequences forever. The descendants of Joshua Chamberlain are no doubt rightly proud of his actions that desperate day on Little Roundtop—but are they haunted by it, too?

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All Southern stories are ultimately about race. In life’s lottery, being born black or white in the South has been a defining circumstance so stark it sometimes seems “it’s getting better” is the only way it can be discussed. At its worse Jim Crow period, Democratic politicians enforced segregation. Now Republicans are being called upon to take down the Confederate flag, and thankfully few are offering much by way of resistance.

No honest person in the South believes there is a clear path to a better place but each day it seems fewer are arguing we shouldn’t try. Public—and often private—conversations about race are invariably difficult but all the more important for the challenge. Our history places a special obligation on Southerners—certainly white Southerners—to address the horrors and pain of racial prejudice. As James Baldwin wrote, “We are trapped in our history and our history is trapped in us.” We can’t run from it or hide from it but only try to confront its truth wherever it leads.

In that most Southern university in our most Southern state, the Mississippi state flag is now locked away, awaiting a better day to rise again. Unlike the integration of Ole Miss, it wasn’t lowered by the edict of federal judges backed by the force of 30,000 troops. This was students trying to work through the most difficult problem that we as Americans face. As Mississippians, we’re still a long way from what we’d like to be but I suspect this day will be one that is looked back upon with pride. Well done.