“Ole Miss fanbase and specifically students are sending a message that attacks against Southern cultural heritage will no longer go without response.”
If this last fall semester was your first at Ole Miss you’d be forgiven for thinking the Grove had always been so full of Mississippi state flags. After all they were everywhere; carried around on sticks by stumbling toddlers and modeled by dress-adorned girls as if they were Fall’s hippest fashion statement, hanging from the tents of locals and out-of-towners alike, and plastered – in sticker form – on the clothes of every other person you saw. As the Rebel’s disappointing football season wore on state flag’s presence grew reaching levels of near-ubiquity by the last three home games, betraying the fact that this display of Mississippi pride and solidarity is, at least explicitly, a new phenomenon.
If one was to critically examine the historical context of Ole Miss’s newest tradition a good place to start would be 1997. It was that year flags were implicitly banned from Vaught-Hemingway Stadium at home games through the “stick ban” policy. The flags, a long-celebrated game day tradition, were scapegoated by then football coach Tommy Tuberville and Chancellor Robert Khayat as a detriment to recruiting and consequently on-field performance for the Rebels. While private sentiment stayed with the flag its public exposure, already waning into the 90’s, was even further diminished. Over the next decade the Ole Miss community would see the loss of its beloved mascot Colonel Reb imposed in much the same way as the stick ban; through executive fiat by the office of the Chancellor and the Director of Athletics. These decisions were made without the support of Ole Miss students, alumni, and supporters and under false pretenses, leading to a cultural divide best demonstrated by popular continuation of Colonel Reb (despite the official promotion of the often-mocked “Rebel Black Bear”).
A later crucial moment came on October 26th, 2015 when interim Chancellor Morris Stocks ordered the removal of the state flag from campus after controversy incited by racial provocateurs within the Associated Student Body. Led by the Ole Miss chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People the ASB Senate was cajoled into supporting a resolution for removing the flag from campus. Again, popular sentiment was ignored and to this day no campus-wide vote has been held on the issue. Shortly afterwards in November 2015 The Our State Flag was formed with the official goal of returning the Mississippi state flag to in-state public universities. The organization began distributing “Ole Miss Fly Your State Flag” stickers shortly thereafter towards the end of the Rebel’s football season, an effort that went largely unnoticed.
“For whatever reason they did, be it in protest of the school’s administration, pride in the state of Mississippi, or just to show the kind of school spirit Ole Miss has lacked since its traditions were first attacked, students and fans have in a sense brought back the flag-waving spirit lost in the 1990’s.”
However If there was a triggering event in the course of this new phenomenon’s gestation it would likely be the University press release on Friday, August 19th 2016 announcing The Pride of the South Marching Band would no longer play any variation of the song “Dixie,” an order made directly by Athletic Director Ross Bjork. The announcement was made after the sale of season tickets and, as has become its own tradition for the University of Mississippi administration, done in the face of express opposition without the participation of Ole Miss student body, alumni, and community under false pretenses. After nearly 20 years of insult and injury it appears this offense is what ignited popular resentment for the current Chancellor Jeff Vitter and Athletic Director Ross Bjork.
What happened next is a testament to the rebel spirit of the Ole Miss student body and a throwback to the days when it radiated Southern heritage and pride. Starting with the Rebel’s first home game of the 2016 season the Our State Flag Foundation again distributed their state flag stickers to anyone who would have them. There was no need for solicitation. Many wanted a sticker to wear and five more for their friends. Inspired by the photos and memories of Ole Miss fans proudly waving flags at football games a north Mississippi group of alumni of over 200 from Oxford, Jackson, Southaven, Senatobia, Saltillo, Belden, Tupelo and the Memphis area decided to purchase 300 state flags on sticks as well as 100 3’x5’ flags to give to anyone who asked from their longtime tent in front of Coulter Hall. An additional 300 stick flags were donated by a foundry in Chicago sympathetic to the cause of students fighting for their traditions and identity. The flags proved wildly popular in their debut at the Alabama game and had nearly all been given away by kickoff. Students, alumni, fans, and even fans of the opposing team adorned themselves with flags and stickers in solidarity with the movement to once again fly the state flag on campus. It was in the stands of the game itself where the image of the Mississippi state flag and the divide between Ole Miss as a culture and the University of Mississippi as an institution passed into legend.
Vaught-Hemingway Stadium held a capacity crowd as Ole Miss prepared for the biggest game of the season against Alabama. The air was electric with anticipation for a potential three-peat against the Crimson Tide, but there was an altogether separate feeling contributing to the atmosphere. Many students had brought state flags into the stadium of varying sizes both on and off sticks. Additionally many carried handheld posters with the message “Let the Band Play Dixie” in hopes to relay the sentiment to the administration. Then it happened: after the Rebels ran out onto the field in the middle of the student section a massive 20’ x 30’ state flag was unfurled to the wild applause and cheers of the crowd. These cheers were easily distinguished from those for the team as they were both louder than the initial run onto the field and erupted after a delay in unfolding the flag. If Chancellor Vitter and Ross Bjork had somehow managed to ignore the student body before this moment they could do so no longer. Their immediate response can only be described as one of the most petty and embittered responses to a popular movement by a school administrator in the history of American university. According to reports from students and fans police were ordered by either Chancellor Vitter or Ross Bjork to confiscate all state flags and “Let the Band Play Dixie” posters. This order did not apply to any other flag, banner, or other item. Police were photographed and videotaped taking flags and arguing with respectful and compliant students while being quoted as threatening anyone who didn’t yield their flag with arrest. It was both a high and low point in Ole Miss history. A genuinely student-led and diverse movement stood proudly in protest of an oppressive and tone-deaf administration. At the end of the day the state flag (and by extension the Southern emblem within it) had flown once again at a Rebel football game.
The events at the Alabama game made national news and went viral online within the week. The University faced intense scrutiny and suffered great embarrassment at the hands of Chancellor Vitter (whose actions earned him the moniker “Bitter Vitter” on social media). From there Ole Miss’s newest tradition exploded. More flags donated, more stickers bought, more posters printed, more Mississippi state pride displayed in the Grove than had ever been seen before. At subsequent home football games fans tested Chancellor Vitter’s enforcement efforts by bringing American flags and regulation-sized posters in an effort to highlight the specific targeting of state flags and pro-Dixie material. As expected only state flag and pro-Dixie material was confiscated. Additionally the reason of “view obstruction” given by the Administration was found fraudulent after large inflatable objects were distributed in the stands by the school itself. In an unprecedented move, Chancellor Vitter elected to block and demean students and fans on social media who questioned his methods and actions, only magnifying perceptions of his pettiness.
For whatever reason they did, be it in protest of the school’s administration, pride in the state of Mississippi, or just to show the kind of school spirit Ole Miss has lacked since its traditions were first attacked, students and fans have in a sense brought back the flag-waving spirit lost in the 1990’s. The future of this tradition is uncertain as the Spring semester begins. While further developments are yet to be seen, efforts by Chancellor Vitter and the University administration to censor the popular banner will likely continue as they did in the Fall, potentially inflating the movement’s popularity. What’s clear is that the Ole Miss fanbase and specifically students are sending a message that attacks against Southern cultural heritage will no longer go without response. And we may see the presence of the Mississippi state flag as Ole Miss’s Newest Tradtion.