The University of Mississippi has been a formidable institution since its founding in 1848—13 years before the Civil War started. And it has been steeped in racism and exclusion for decades. The school’s mascot has changed several times since 1928, but the most controversial—from the late ’70s through 2003—was “Colonel Reb,” a caricature of a slaveowner (the current mascot is the “Landshark”). The school didn’t remove the song “Dixie” from its marching band’s repertoire until 2016. A long-contested Confederate statue that graced the entrance of the campus was finally moved in 2020 to a less prominent location on university property. Yet, the racist monikers of “Ole Miss,” an antebellum term used by the enslaved, and “Rebels” who fought to uphold slavery, are still held dear.
In 2018, Ed Meek, a wealthy businessman who donated $5.3 million to the School of Journalism and New Media and had it subsequently named after him, wrote a blatantly racist, sexist Facebook post that made Black female students feel specifically targeted and unwelcome at a university where underrepresented Black students and faculty make up 13 and 6 percent respectively in a state where 38 percent of the population is Black. By contrast, an overrepresented 76 percent of students and faculty are white. Several members of the faculty and staff and students initiated a petition to rename the building, remove the Confederate statue, and to establish scholarships for Black women in journalism. A name that was floated to replace Meek’s was that of my great-grandmother Ida B. Wells—a journalism pioneer and native Mississippian from nearby Holly Springs.
One of those who protested was UM history professor Dr. Garrett Felber, who strongly advocated for the renaming of the journalism school. I met him in 2018 when he organized an Ida B. Wells Teach-In that featured various speakers, a student choir, a short video, and I gave a few remarks. Interacting with advocates for justice and inclusion gave me a sense of hope that UM, which has a contentious history of race relations, would finally get on the path to being a more open and inclusive institution. When I met with the then-dean of the journalism school, I did not experience a warm reception. I left the meeting with the impression that there was more sympathy for the wealthy donor Meek, who was viewed as having his character attacked, than the Black students whose presence he implied denigrated the quality of the school. Meek eventually withdrew his money and removed his name from the school.
Despite the tough and sometimes racially contentious environments on some college campuses, the academy is routinely framed by some as liberal enclaves where people mull over philosophies that are removed from the “real world.” Felber is the opposite of that. Like Wells, he has advocated fiercely to address and solve issues of criminal justice. He was the lead organizer of the Making and Unmaking Mass Incarceration conference, project director of the Parchman Oral History Project, and co-founder of Liberation Literacy, an abolitionist collective which began as a racial justice reading group inside and outside of prisons in Oregon. He initiated the Prison Abolition Syllabus, which contextualized the prison strikes in 2016 and 2018. He also helped launch Study and Struggle, a political education program that addresses the crises of Mississippi prisons and detention centers.
His advocacy is reminiscent of Wells, who frequently visited prisoners and even worked as a probation officer because she was committed to helping those who were easy targets of the police state. She wrote about the injustice of the convict lease system, which used prisoners as sources of free labor. She also wrote her detailed pamphlet The Arkansas Race Riot, after she visited a group of imprisoned sharecroppers from Elaine, Arkansas who defended themselves from attack by a group of white vigilantes.
Felber was on the brink of expanding his work focused on the carceral state when a $57,000 grant he applied for was heralded by the university to support the Study and Struggle program. Then a second grant for the same program was rejected by the chair of his department with the claim that the program was political versus historical and could jeopardize department funding. This was in the climate of the Trump administration’s attack on critical race theory and antiracist work. Felber suspected the rejection of the grant was more about appeasing racist donors than the excuse he was given about him not following proper procedure. He requested a written explanation outlining the rationale for the rejection of the grant as a condition of him meeting with his chair about the matter. Then he lost his job.
The sudden termination of Felber sends a very strong and disturbing message. Felber was doing antiracist work and initiated programs that benefited the marginalized and disenfranchised. He was questioning the university's deference to wealthy racists, which is part of its long and storied history of racial intolerance, marginalization, and downright violence against Black people and their allies. To directly address past injustices, he organized a program in February 2020 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the mass arrest and expulsion of Black students who simply demanded equality, respect, and support. From the need to have federal protection for James Meredith to integrate the school in 1962, to the lethargy with which the university has addressed offensive symbols, songs, and statues, the flagship state school in my great-grandmother’s home state of Mississippi seems proud to uphold an environment that is hostile toward diversity, equity, and inclusion.
A letter of support for Felber with pledges to avoid speaking at the school until he is reinstated has already garnered over 5,000 signatures from his fellow academics across the country. This show of solidarity among scholars illustrates that there is a community that believes in tolerance, inclusion, academic freedom, and institutional transparency. After a protest-filled summer in response to systemic racism and police brutality, some institutions are examining their environments and making significant strides to reckon with racist pasts and policies. Maybe UM will someday be proactive in a march toward reparative justice versus begrudgingly responding to agitation.
Michelle Duster teaches at Columbia College Chicago. She is the author of the forthcoming Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells (Atria/One Signal Publishers).