JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — James Meredith, who integrated the University of Mississippi under federal protection a half-century ago, says it’s a shame that state authorities deferred to the federal government to bring charges after a noose was left on a campus statue of him.
The Justice Department said Friday that a former Ole Miss student, Graeme Phillip Harris of Alpharetta, Georgia, has been indicted on one count of conspiracy to violate civil rights and one count of using a threat of force to intimidate African-American students because of their race or color.
The indictment is connected to a February 2014 incident in which a noose and a former Georgia flag, prominently featuring the Confederate battle emblem, were placed on a Meredith statue near the main administration building at Ole Miss. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Harris had an attorney to contact for comment on his behalf.
Harris, who is white, was an Ole Miss student when the noose was left on the statue. University spokesman Danny Blanton said Friday that Harris is no longer enrolled and that university officials turned the case over to federal prosecutors and deferred to their judgment.
Meredith, who is 81 and lives in Jackson, said state authorities should have pursed charges.
“What it is saying is that the only possible justice for a black in the state of Mississippi is the federal government and if there’s anything that we don’t need it’s that being our only means of expecting justice,” Meredith told The Associated Press in a phone interview Friday. “I think Mississippi is better than that. If it’s not better than that, it should be made better than that.”
The local district attorney said in 2014 that state charges wouldn’t be filed because no state laws were broken. Mississippi’s hate crime law requires an underlying crime for additional charges. Because the statute wasn’t marred or broken, prosecutors said typical vandalism charges didn’t apply.
In 1962, anti-integration protests erupted into violence and Meredith had to be escorted by armed federal agents as he enrolled under court order as the first black student at the university.
In announcing the indictment of Harris on Friday, Attorney General Eric Holder said of the noose incident: “This shameful and ignorant act is an insult to all Americans and a violation of our most strongly-held values.
“No one should ever be made to feel threatened or intimidated because of what they look like or who they are,” Holder said in a news release. “By taking appropriate action to hold wrongdoers accountable, the Department of Justice is sending a clear message that flagrant infringements of our historic civil rights will not go unnoticed or unpunished.”
Hundreds of Ole Miss students attended a racial reconciliation rally on campus after the 2014 incident.
“It has taken time, but the process has worked and I’m confident justice will be done,” Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones said in a statement Friday. “I am thankful for the strong, united response of our university community to the desecration of the James Meredith statue last year, confirming our university values of civility and respect.”
The national office of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity suspended its Ole Miss chapter after three of the chapter’s members were accused of leaving the noose and flag on the Meredith statue. Names of the three students from Georgia were not released at the time.
The Meredith statue was erected in 2006 near the main administrative building at Ole Miss, the Lyceum. In a 2012 autobiography, Meredith said the university should destroy the statue because he said it trivialized his effort to destroy a system of white supremacy that had long dominated Mississippi, his native state.
“I have become a piece of art, a tourist attraction, a soothing image on the civil rights tour of the South, a public relations tool for the powers that be at Ole Miss, and feel-good icon of brotherly love and racial reconciliation, frozen in gentle docility,” Meredith wrote.
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