Emails Show U of Mississippi Officials Concerned that Fired Historian Criticized Private Prison Ties, Upset DonorsHistorians in the News
tags: University of Mississippi, prisons, academic freedom, radical history, Garrett Felber
Before the University of Mississippi terminated Dr. Garrett Felber, an anti-racist history professor, his public criticisms of its ties to the private-prison industry drew concern from administrators on campus who had monitored social-media activities, emails this publication obtained show.
After news of Felber’s termination broke in December 2020, Provost Noel Wilkin said it was because the history department chair, Noell Wilson, had “lost confidence that an untenured faculty member would act in good faith and be responsive to her repeated efforts to help him succeed.” But the historian claimed his termination was retaliation for his activism, his criticisms of administrators’ focus on appeasing wealthy donors, and the university’s role in mass incarceration. Yesterday, Felber’s lawyers announced a settlement with the university.
“I was terminated because of my public statements, including legitimate criticisms of the university. Rather than go to court and seek reinstatement, I have chosen to move on and continue my work from a position outside this university,” Felber said in a statement yesterday with the Mississippi Center For Justice.
Emails this reporter obtained in 2020 show that top-level UM officials were indeed concerned with the history professor’s public comments, including at a 2019 prison abolition conference, which the now-editor of the Mississippi Free Press had covered. At the Dec. 5, 2019, Making and Unmasking Mass Incarceration Conference, Felber drew a line between the university’s history of slavery, its hand in the creation of the slave plantation-like Parchman Prison and one celebrated instructor’s financial ties to a private-prison corporation.
‘A Man Who Leads Dual Lives’
“If we do not dismantle the underlying structures of which prisons and police are simply manifestations, we will surely create newer, crueler, more efficient forms of punishment,” Felber told the audience at the Dec. 5, 2019, Making and Unmaking Mass Incarceration Conference. “Since many of us are housed at universities, even if we do not call them home, I’d like to focus my remarks on our host: The University of Mississippi.”
From the stage of Downtown Oxford’s Lyric Theater that day, Felber explained to participants that the MUMI conference was originally slated to be held in the auditorium of the Overby Center for the Study of Southern Journalism and Politics—a building named for journalist, editor and current UM journalism instructor Charles Overby.
“And I’m going to abide by the greatest journalist the South ever produced, Ida B. Wells, who urged us that the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them,” the history professor said.
Felber then recited Overby’s history, starting with his time as the editor of UM’s student newspaper in 1969. During his career, Overby served as the executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. Later, he was the CEO and chairman of The Freedom Forum, a nonprofit that advocates for the free press, from 1989 to 2011. During Overby’s tenure, The Freedom Forum donated $5 million to establish the Overby Center on UM’s campus in 2001.
“The Freedom Forum’s guiding principles are free speech, free press and free spirit. As you can see inscribed in the middle of the Overby Center, it is dedicated to the education and maintenance of the First Amendment,” Felber continued. “But that same year in 2001, Overby also became the director of the board of CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America, now rebranded as CoreCivic, the second largest private-prison company in the nation.
“Since then, Overby has received an annual salary and stock options from CoreCivic, and his current shares in the company are nearing $1.5 million, and he has sold over half a million dollars in stocks,” the history professor stated.