By Talbert Toole
The University of Mississippi found its place front and center on the national media’s stage after the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting published a controversial photo of three former Kappa Alpha’s.
The nonprofit news organization published the story July 25 revealing a photo that depicted three KA’s cradling guns in front of the bullet-riddled Emmett Till marker located near Glendora, Mississippi. Since its publication, the story has not only reached national media outlets but has also faced criticism and backlash, especially from Ole Miss alumni, faculty and staff, and students.
Interim Chancellor Larry Sparks released a statement to the Ole Miss community Friday, July 26, concerning the picture which was posted on one of the fraternity member’s private Instagram accounts. During the length of its post, it garnered over 200 likes from his followers. Sparks stated the picture was “offensive, hurtful, and disgusting.” However, due to the photo’s clear indication that it was off-campus, Sparks made no mention of expulsion or violation of the university creed.
“They do not speak for our institution, and they do not define us,” Sparks clarified.
Rod Guajardo, associate director of strategic communications, told the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting that while the university considered the picture “offensive,” the image did not present a violation of the university’s code of conduct.
However, in a joint statement released Friday by the Associated Student Body (ASB) and Black Student Union (BSU), they make a clear statement that the university’s creed is being violated: “while the actions of those students may not directly violate the university’s code of conduct, the actions and photo are a direct violation of the University’s Creed.”
University of Mississippi Creed:
“The University of Mississippi is a community of learning dedicated to nurturing excellence in intellectual inquiry and personal character in an open and diverse environment. As a voluntary member of this community:
I believe in respect for the dignity of each person
I believe in fairness and civility
I believe in personal and professional integrity
I believe in academic honesty
I believe in academic freedom
I believe in good stewardship of our resources
I pledge to uphold these values and encourage others to follow my example.”
The statement also mentioned how the University Creed is not an actionable plan but simply a set of “beliefs pledged and upheld” by each and every member of the University of Mississippi community. The two organizations stated they expect the University administration to hold all members of its community accountable to the Creed and have appropriate consequences to those who break the promise set forward by the institution.
The two organizations stated it expects to see changes in upholding not only the code of conduct but the creed as well within 90 days of the statement’s release.
Although the three members have since been suspended from the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity, many Ole Miss community members advocated for harsher penalties by the University.
However, Sparks released a second statement July 29 recognizing the mishandling of the investigation into the picture.
He stated that the university launched an internal review last week of the handling of the incident, and it was revealed that there were miscommunications between units at the university.
Arielle Hudson, president of the BSU and a senator in the ASB, said she initially thought the picture was fake, however, as the news continued to spread regarding the controversial picture of the three KA students, she Googled “Ole Miss” and two “tragic” headlines appeared at the top of her screen: “the murder of Ally Kostial and the three KA members with their guns in front of Emmett Till’s memorial marker.”
Hudson said initially she could not understand why someone would pose in front of a marker dedicated to a slain victim of “racial discrimination and racial terrorism” while brandishing guns.
“But then, I started to get angry because I noticed the pride and joy in their smiles,” Hudson said. “The same type of pride and joy that a hunter shows after they’ve shot their game.”
Hudson said while Sparks’ statement was stronger than others, it was still passive and did not hold the three students accountable for their actions.
“Nor did it fully address the issue at hand and what they did,” she said.
A Lingering Past
The Kappa Alpha Order fraternity has significant connections to the Confederacy and has been criticized for it in the past. The Ole Miss chapter use to annually celebrate what was once called the “Old South”—a social event where members and their dates dress in timely southern garb. However, in 2016, the fraternity decided to distance itself from “the negative trappings associated with the Old South period,” according to a 2016 KA newsletter.
Founded in 1865, the fraternity still holds ties to controversial historical leaders. Their website states General Robert E. Lee is a “spiritual founder” of the fraternity although Lee has no direct connection to the organization, and the fraternity still actively sells books that focus on the Confederate general.
However, the fraternity decided to honor another tradition and named the formal “Rose Ball” after the crimson rose which celebrates a member’s “sweetheart.” In addition, members and their “sweethearts” no longer wear southern garb to the social event.
Jesse Lyons, assistant executive director for advancement and editor of The Kappa Alpha Journal, stated in an email to Hottytoddy.com that the fraternity has consistently distanced itself from reviewed and revised policies regarding all social events conducted by individual chapters to ensure actions were in line with the organization’s core values.
“These include the prohibition of any trappings and nomenclature associated with the Civil War period,” Lyons stated.
Lyons also stated that the past events, formally known as “Old South,” were never required, and any event hosted by the fraternity’s chapters must align with dignity, respect and be in compliance with each respected university’s policies.
According to Lyons, “The national fraternity has a known record of enforcing compliance for violations of any of our laws and policies, as well as decorum of chapters and members.”
In Sparks’ original statement to the Ole Miss community, he stated that the university is “ready to assist the fraternity with educational opportunities for those members and the chapter.”
Lyons told Hottytoddy.com that it will engage with the university for educational purposes for the local chapter; however, he did not clarify specifics, but the chapter is considering several steps to help demonstrate the fraternity’s character to the UM community.
“The chapter leadership has already been in contact with the Emmett Till Commission,” he stated.
Lyons also mentioned the Ole Miss chapter of KA took the strongest action in reprimanding the members pictured in front of the marker by suspending them.
“The photo and its posting were inappropriate, insensitive, and unacceptable. It does not represent the chapter or Kappa Alpha Order,” Lyons stated.
Although the fraternity has made strides to distance itself from the “trappings of the Civil War,” Hudson said the continuation of association with “southern heritage” and connection to ideologies, like those of Lee, send a clear message, especially to people of color – “It tells us that we are not welcomed,” she said.
This is also not the first time a fraternity at Ole Miss has been scrutinized for racist actions. A photo in 2001 depicted an Alpha Tau Omega fraternity member dressed as a police officer for Halloween pointing a gun at another member in blackface picking cotton. The two members were expelled from the fraternity and the organization was suspended for a year.
In February 2014, three former university students and members of the now-closed Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity were suspected of hanging a noose and Confederate flag around the statue of James Meredith—the first African-American admitted into the university. Two of the members pleaded guilty and served federal jail time.
A Call to Action
Jarrius Adams, former president of the University of Mississippi Gospel Choir and now alumnus, led a protest for Black History Month this past March in opposition of the Confederate monument that stands in the Lyceum-Circle on the Ole Miss campus.
Adams told Hottytoddy.com his initial reaction after seeing the story regarding the three KA members in front of the Emmett Till marker was “here we go again.”
“Being a student, at least for the past four years, we have seen something like this every year,” Adams said. “This isn’t new behavior.”
Adams said he is always trying to use his position to better the university, especially for students that look like himself, an African-American. He said he and his classmates, who some are still enrolled as students, are tired of “statements” from the university.
“It takes nothing for the chancellor’s secretary to type up a statement and release it,” he said. “We need action.”
Hudson also said although the university has “progressed tremendously” over the past years, there still remains a culture of “discrimination, bias, white supremacy and racism” that still exist throughout the fraternity and sorority houses at Ole Miss.
“The University has not been properly monitoring the internal structure or dynamics within the houses of these fraternities and sororities,” Hudson said. ” It’s time for them to stop turning a blind eye to it.”
Adams said the university and its members know where the problems lie and cannot rely on fraternities to be individual activists in changing the culture that engulfs the campus and its students.
“We need to hold these people accountable,” Adams said.
Implementing Policy and Curricular Changes
Although KA Nationals stated it was making strides in educating the Ole Miss chapter, the University of Mississippi Critical Race Studies Group (CRSG) also sent a letter to the university administration stating three key changes that should be implemented on campus.
The organization, which is apart of the Sociology department, seeks to “identify and address racial and other inequalities at the University of Mississippi and elsewhere, thus helping to promote vibrant, respectful, diverse communities.”
The three changes the CRSG focused on in its letter to the administration are policy, curricular and extracurricular changes throughout the university.
After Sparks addressed how the administration mishandled the situation since the finding of the picture, CRSG advocated fixing the bias incident reporting system and punish rule-breakers with meaningful penalties.
It also addressed implementing curricular changes by providing “course-development funds for General Education courses on Anti-Racism, Anti-Sexism, Anti-Homophobia, and Anti-Semitism and Anti-Islamaphobia.”