One Mississippi for All
They brought down a symbol of hate, and in the process, captivated the attention of a nation
Allen Coon and Will Frierson joined The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Vote Everywhere (VE) program hoping to make a difference at the University of Mississippi. Within weeks of arriving to campus after a summer break, they did just that.
For years, Allen and Will felt that the Mississippi state flag, which features a confederate emblem, had no place flying on a campus that should stand for diversity and inclusion. The VE Ambassadors and other members of the University wanted to bring the flag down, but they knew there was a long road ahead of them.
In September 2015, Allen and Will arrived to campus having recently attended AGF’s inaugural National Training Institute, a four-day training intensive on the fundamentals of impact-oriented campus organizing and voter engagement. What they learned at the institute guided the strategic vision for the bring-down-the-flag campaign.
At the institute, the Ambassadors learned first-hand from civil rights legend Clarence Benjamin Jones, attorney and speechwriter for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. According to Vanity Fair, “Although Clarence B. Jones isn’t a household name, it should be. From 1960 to 1968 this razor-sharp lawyer was one of King’s ace advisers and speechwriters. Together, the men slew racist dragons from coast to coast.”
From Clarence Jones, Allen and Will learned to appreciate the careful planning and organizing required to execute successful civil rights movements, like Selma and the March on Washington. “To win an issue and bring about long-term positive change, you must weigh your options, organize effectively, and plan strategically,” says Allen. “Mr. Jones’ lessons at the Institute inspired us to launch the bring-down-the-flag campaign,” adds Will. Allen and Willie left the Institute with a vision for the fall semester.
After conducting research and concluding that a state university may choose not to fly the state flag, the team began planning a campaign. “I contacted the campus NAACP chapter leadership to form a coalition of student organizations to publicly denounce the flag and urge removal,” says Allen. The team of student organizers worked together to launch an ambitious, persuasive, multi-pronged campaign. Day after day, they met with student government and University leadership to discuss the coalition’s vision for bringing down the flag.
On October 16, days before the scheduled student government debate about the flag issue, the Ambassadors and the NAACP organized a rally. Over 200 students united on the steps of the Lyceum, the University’s iconic administrative building, calling for the removal of the state flag from campus.
Their rally, however, also attracted unwanted detractors. The League of the South, a white supremacist organization labeled a hate group by the SPLC, arrived to the University of Mississippi to counter-protest the take-down-the-flag rally. “Immediately following the conclusion of the Take-It-Down rally, members of the League and a Georgia division of the Ku Klux Klan arrived to campus, toting confederate flags,” says Allen. “The counter-protesters hurled insults at the students, screaming things like “black lives don’t matter.” That day, several Klan members were arrested for bringing guns to the campus.
“The appearance of the Klan was also the tipping point in terms of media coverage for our movement,” says Allen. Within hours of the event, national news networks were calling Allen and the organizers to speak about the rally. Their story went viral and within days, their efforts captured the attention of the nation.
Every major national news network, from CNN to The Washington Post, reported on the take-it-down campaign. The campaign also became a trending topic on Facebook and Twitter for hours.
Their campaign was successful. Days later, the University brought down the flag. The Ambassadors united a campus and brought down a symbol of hate with the help of The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Vote Everywhere program. “The program provided us with the tools to successfully spark awareness and voter involvement in our community,” says Will. “The resources and information provided by the program were invaluable in devising a plan to engage the campus community,” he adds.
The bring-down-the-flag campaign was a defining moment in Allen and Will’s undergraduate experience. Since the campaign, they have remained involved with the Foundation as VE Ambassadors.
“The legacy of Goodman, Schwerner, and Cheney is one that we want to honor every day. These three men were murdered here in Mississippi, and it is our goal to continue to educate young people in this state and throughout the country about racism, white supremacy, and the importance of civic engagement. Vote Everywhere provides us with a forum to do so and some of the resources to make it possible,” says Will.
This year, their goals are equally ambitious. In addition to encouraging University of Mississippi students to register and vote, the team is also working to address other issues of racism on Campus. They want to bring awareness to naming campus buildings after white supremacists and the history of the University’s nickname, Ole Miss, which references the title slaves used for their owner’s wife.
“Taking down the Mississippi state flag was a big success, but it’s only the start of progress that can be made on campus. Encouraging students to live by the University’s creed and respect history while being inclusive of our diverse community is our biggest goal. We want to encourage students to not only know the University’s beliefs and history, but also to engage with it to make our whole community better,” says Allen.