OXFORD, Miss. — To shocked onlookers, nothing could excuse the racially charged vandalism of a statue honoring James Meredith, the University of Mississippi’s first black student. But that hasn’t stopped the three white students implicated in the episode from appealing to the state’s “stand-your-ground” law in hopes of avoiding punishment.
Lawyers for the 19-year-old freshmen members of Sigma Phi Epsilon, all hailing form Georgia, told authorities, “There is little question that our clients felt threatened by the presence of a statue representing racial integration on campus. They merely took action to defend themselves from what they considered to be a threat to their very [bigoted] existence.”
A written affidavit claimed that the three “fought back the only way they knew how.” They placed a noose around the bronze neck of the effigy, “just as their parents had taught them to do were they ever in a bind.”
An early report indicated that the statue had been wearing a “suspicious hoodie” that seemed completely out of place on campus. Subsequent investigation, led by the university’s police department in collaboration with the F.B.I., revealed that the “hoodie” was a flag with the Confederate battle emblem draped over the statue by the same students in question.
Legal scholars, including Professor Charles Mandelbaum of Ole Miss, have been studying the case to determine whether a stand-your-ground defense is likely to stand up in court.
Mandelbaum explained that the state statute would justify the use of deadly force if the students had lynched the statue while resisting its attempt to commit a felony against them. “But,” said Mandelbaum, “merely having a black presence on campus may not constitute a felony in the eyes of the court—not even in Mississippi.”
Charles W. Eagles, a history professor at the university, said that “if you bill yourself as Ole Miss and you call yourself the ‘Rebels’ and the first thing a visitor to the campus sees is a Confederate monument, whether intentionally or not, it conveys an image.”
The university is committed to cultivating a more welcoming, progressive image. Said the university’s chancellor, “We shouldn’t expect a repeat of this act of vandalism, at least not involving any of the other statues on campus,” like the one honoring Confederate soldiers that stands just a few hundred yards away from Meredith’s. “I can’t see why anyone would feel threatened by a monument like that.”