Story highlights

Rallies decrying flag have drawn Ku Klux Klan to campus, student newspaper says

One student senator says changing flag "will do nothing to change the way people feel"

Student leading effort: "We fought for it, and it's time to recognize that that was a mistake"

CNN  — 

University of Mississippi student senators voted Tuesday evening in favor of a resolution asking the university to remove the Mississippi flag, which includes the iconic blue cross and stars representing the states of the Confederacy, from campus.

Thirty-three student senators voted in favor of the resolution, 15 opposed it, and one abstained.

Oxford is a place where tradition is revered, and Confederate symbolism has long been important to the school’s image. Ole Miss athletic teams are called the Rebels, and until 2003, Colonel Reb was the university’s mascot. (In 2010, Rebel Black Bear was selected as the school’s mascot.)

Thus, it’s little surprise that calls to take down the state flag around campus – a move that would mirror the August decision by the Oxford Board of Aldermen to remove the flag from city property – have been met with a fair amount of criticism. After all, this is in a state that voted in 2001 by a margin of 64% to 36% to leave the flag as is.

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Not only has a petition to keep the flag garnered more than 200 supporters, but according to the Ole Miss student newspaper, flag supporters have attended anti-flag rallies carrying signs saying, “This is our University too,” “#whataboutus?,” “I am more than a flag” and “Straight Outta Patience.”

The Daily Mississippian quoted Shaun Winkler, one of a dozen members of a Ku Klux Klan organization attending one such rally last week, saying that since June’s church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, “black leftist communism” groups have begun forming.

“I feel that the Ku Klux Klan is no more racist than the Black Lives Matter (movement),” he told the newspaper. “The Black Lives Matter is just as racist as the Ku Klux Klan could be.”

It’s true that Confederate tributes have come under increased scrutiny in the South since the killings of nine African-Americans at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. That’s something the president of the Ole Miss College Democrats, Allen Coon, pointed out in a statement last month.

Saying the Charleston shooting forced the nation to “reconcile with symbols of oppression,” he called on the Associated Student Body to approve the nonbinding resolution to have the state flag removed from campus. The school’s NAACP chapter issued a similar statement.

“The presence of the Mississippi state flag on the campus of the University of Mississippi divides our student body, undermines efforts to promote inclusion and violates the UM Creed, which calls for us all to respect the dignity of each person,” Coon’s statement said.

In an interview with CNN over the weekend, he said, “We are forever tied to the horrors of our past” by flying the flag.

“We’ve flown this symbol of oppression. We’ve defended it. We fought for it, and it’s time to recognize that that was a mistake,” he said.

It’s a stance that seems to sit just fine with the university administration, which released a statement saying, “As a state institution, we fly the flags representing our state and nation. However, as a university committed to fostering a welcoming and inclusive campus for all students, we continue to join other leaders in Mississippi to encourage our government to change the state flag.”

In August, actor Morgan Freeman, author John Grisham and musician Jimmy Buffett were among more than 60 people who signed a letter, published in The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, calling on the state to come up with a new flag.

At least three of the state’s public universities already do not fly the flag. Before the statewide referendum in 2001, Mississippi State University’s Faculty Senate voted to support efforts to change the state flag.

Still, there was no shortage of people urging the student senators to protect the state flag with Tuesday’s vote.

In the aforementioned petition, Andrew Soper, a student senator, wrote, “Removing symbols, flags and monuments will do nothing to change the way people feel in their hearts.”

“Ole Miss Students and my fellow Mississippians, rise up and push back on political correctness and support the state flag,” he implored.

But Coon insists the vote doesn’t have to be divisive.

“Why can’t we get behind this? Why can’t we understand that this is something that affects people every day that they go to class?” he said. “If it doesn’t pass, we’ll find a way.”

CNN’s Nick Valencia and Dana Ford contributed to this report.