Performing Violence: The Case of the James Meredith Statue

Imagine being the journalist assigned to call an eighty-one year old man to tell him that the statue of his image, erected close to the site where the governor of his state physically barred his access to college 52 years ago, had been draped in a vintage confederate Georgia state flag, had a noose wrapped around its neck -- in other words, had been symbolically lynched?  James Meredith received calls from journalists this week, after the memorial to integration at the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss, was vandalized on Sunday.

Let's traumatize him again, shall we?  

Meredith's response to the news of what was almost certainly a hate crime on the Oxford, Mississippi campus?  He told Shay Harris of WMCT that the crime confirmed what he already knew, " that Mississippi has a moral character breakdown."

As an historian who thinks a lot about the legacies of painful histories, I was concerned that the media might track down Meredith for his reaction.  To me, the story didn't lie there, however.  More important is the campus's response.  First, there is the alumni association's decision to offer a $25,000 reward for information that led to the arrest of the vandals.  Was this, I wondered, because they really wanted to find out what happened or because they knew they weren't going to? Was it an act of defiance against  hate crimes or an attempt to save face while also acknowledging the likelihood that the campus would keep its secrets?  Time will tell.  

Was the symbolic lynching a response to the Michael Dunn verdict?  There is no way of knowing, at least not unless the perpetrators are in custody.


Several vigils were held at the memorial site early this week, and campus officials were quick to point out that the statue has what geographer Ken Foote calls "sanctified" status --- people interact with it regularly, shaking the statue's hand, hugging it, reading the inscription, having their picture taken.  In fact, its status as an important site of memory is what targeted it in the first place for attack.  If the statue of Meredith was inconsequential, off to the side, a place no one engaged, it would not have been defiled.  Its ability to give voice to a 50+ history of integration and to stand as a commitment to equal rights for all, made it a target. 

I found it disturbing that journalists would seek out Meredith, who refused to speak with reporters initially.  It is not his history alone that was desecrated. It was our history, U.S. history.  It was not his identity defiled, it was also ours. There are the sketchy ethics of asking an old man what he thinks about racists vandalizing the statue, but there are also the questionable assumptions that Meredith would want to remember and re-experience his memories of Ole Miss in the first place.  

His comments were jumbled when he did talk with reporters. Sometimes people answer questions they want to be asked instead of answering the question they were asked. Here he was most likely referring to racism and to a society that tolerates and condones it, "Until we solve that problem and until we start training up our children the way they should go like the Bible says it will remain the same," said Meredith.

But his final comment to reporter Shay Harris is striking for the challenge it poses to anyone who might want to interpret it.    "I promised God I was not going to do two things: I wasn't going to lie anymore and I wasn't going to judge anymore."

 Was he reflecting on his own experiences balancing private and public memories of his experiences at the front lines of the battle for equality of opportunity and access for African Americans? Was this at all relevant to the discussion of the statue or was Meredith commenting about something else entirely, something meaningful to him but out of context? Was this an outburst of emotion, the coherence of which is real if not verbal?  

I am not sure.  But let's try to remember that the statue of Meredith is a testament to this history as our history, not solely his.  He may be iconic of the struggle, but in the face of the events on the Ole Miss campus, we are reminded to pick up the burdens of memory and not to lay them down, again, at the feet of those on whom injustice has been visited.