The Latest Chapter in Mississippi’s Long History of Squelching Anti-Racist ActivismRoundup
tags: racism, Jim Crow, Mississippi, censorship, academic freedom
William Sturkey is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of Hattiesburg: An American City in Black and White.
On Dec. 10, Garrett Felber, an assistant professor of history at the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”), received an email notifying him without warning that his position would be terminated at the end of 2021. Felber is an award-winning scholar and an internationally recognized leader in the study of mass incarceration — one of the pressing questions of our time, considering that the United States incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any other nation.
Though his department chair claims that his termination stems from a breakdown in communication, scholars and non-scholars alike were shocked that a professor on leave — as a research fellow at Harvard University — could be fired for a failure to communicate, especially in the middle of a global pandemic. Many observers familiar with Felber joined colleagues within his own department, pointing to his activist work in support of funding education for those incarcerated, and his earlier critiques of the university as the underlying reasons for his dismissal.
While shock about Felber’s firing has taken social media by storm, the case falls within a larger historical pattern of how anti-racist scholars and activists have been treated at Mississippi’s educational institutions. Throughout every era of Mississippi history, state institutions have been used to squash free speech and dissent. Although Mississippi has undergone immense changes, this disturbing tradition of silencing those who advocate for non-White groups continues well into the 21st century. Like everything else in Mississippi, this assault on free speech has a deep history that is directly connected to race.
Mississippi has censored dissent and free thought since the beginning of its statehood. Slavery drove the state’s population growth, and by 1840 the number of enslaved African Americans topped that of White Mississippi residents. Members of this Black majority were prohibited from learning to read and write because of the threat literacy might pose to the institution of slavery. Abolitionist literature was banned or destroyed, despite the First Amendment’s free speech protections. Even after Emancipation, Black education was attacked by roving white supremacist organizations that targeted the Freedmen’s Bureau schools built to educate the newly emancipated Black residents during Reconstruction.
In the decades that followed, White Mississippians silenced free speech and dissent through violence, ranging from Jim Crow-era assaults to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till as retribution for speaking to a White woman. For years, Mississippi led the United States in the number of lynchings, leading civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer to dub it, the “land of the tree and home of the grave.” It also directly targeted the Black press, seeking to eliminate any voices that advocated for racial equality. In the 1890s, Black Mississippians published 46 newspapers, but by 1954 state-sponsored repression left them with only five. The editor of the most openly pro-civil rights newspaper of the 1950s was committed to a mental institution before his allies managed to smuggle him out of the state in a coffin.
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