A pro-Confederate rally Saturday at the University of Mississippi, or “Ole Miss,” in the town of Oxford, claimed to be a defense of Southern heritage instead of racism. It also began with a prayer of thanks to Southern plantation owners for teaching “heathen” Africans about Christianity.
The protest, organized by two groups, The Hiwaymen and Confederate 901, billed itself as an effort to “draw the line in the sand” over attempts at Ole Miss to distance itself from its Confederate past. It also aimed to push back against calls from some campus activists to remove a Confederate memorial from the campus grounds.
“If you are fed up with this Political Correctness BS and sick and tired of this mess happening then please join,” the event’s Facebook page said.
As the small group of pro-Confederate protesters gathered in Oxford’s downtown square Saturday morning ahead of a march to the Ole Miss campus, Confederate and Mississippi state flags in hand, counter-protesters nearly drowned them out with chants of “hey hey / ho ho / racism has got to go,” “tear it down,” an “racists, go home.”
The group Students Against Social Injustice held a separate protest on the Ole Miss campus Friday to call for administrators to remove the school’s Confederate memorial.
Intermittent rain, a tornado watch, and a local boil-water order may have had an impact on turnout for both sides of Saturday’s protest. Officials at Ole Miss asked students to stay away from the protest, and many students left campus for the weekend.
White supremacists and white-supremacist symbols are not welcomed at the protest, Confederate 901 co-founder George “K-Rack” Johnson said in a video posted to Facebook on Saturday morning.
“If you are associated with any kind of white-supremacist or hate groups or anything like that, you are not welcomed at this event,” Johnson said.
“If you have any kind of symbolism of any kind of white nationalist groups or white supremacy groups, you will be asked to leave. You might get your ass whooped … It’s only Confederate flags, Mississippi state flags, and American flags.”
Billy Sessions of The Hiwaymen also denied that the pro-Confederate rally is about race in a video posted to Facebook on Saturday.
“We’re not a racist group,” Sessions said. “We ain’t got no ties to any damn white nationalist or white supremacist group whatsoever … We’re just Southern guys that believe our history and our heritage should be left alone. We ain’t coming out here calling for anything else. Leave our shit alone. Be happy.”
But the issue of race lingered just beneath the surface.
During a prayer to begin the rally, black pro-Confederate protester H.K. Edgerton, dressed in Confederate grays, thanked “all the Christian white folks in the Southland of America, on plantations all across the South, who took that heathen in Africa who didn’t know anything about Jesus Christ.”
“Thank you, and thank your ancestors,” Edgerton continued to “amens” his fellow protesters.
Even as Sessions denied any affiliation with white supremacist groups in his video, he also called on people who oppose Confederate monuments to move to China or Mexico and said counter-protesters should understand pro-Confederate activists because they are also proud of their ancestors from “fucking Cuba,” Mexico, or England.
The Hiwaymen were at the Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 where a neo-Nazi drove his car into a group of anti-racism protesters, killing one and injuring dozens of others.
In his video Saturday, Sessions blamed anti-fascist protesters — or “antifa” — and local police for the violence.
Sessions also spoke fondly of attending a far-right protest in Portland, Oregon, with John “Based Spartan” Turano, a veteran of alt-right street protests with a “white power” tattoo who once had a swastika tattooed on his hand.
Turano and his Roman-style body armor were an alt-right icon in Portland. But he left the scene in 2017 over discomfort with what he said was hatred among its members.
“Racist ain’t too far from the truth,” Turano told Portland State University’s student newspaper in 2017.
Segregationists battled federal, state, and local security forces in Oxford over two days in 1962 when James Meredith enrolled as the first black student at Ole Miss. By the time the riots were over, two people were dead and hundreds more were injured.