How Tommy Tuberville and the power of compromise helped remove Confederate flags from the University of Mississippi
It’s no secret that Ole Miss alum Harold Burson, co-founder of public relations powerhouse Burson-Marsteller, was the driving force in helping former university chancellor Robert Khayat get rid of Confederate flags on the University of Mississippi campus, particularly at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on game days.
While history sometimes waters down how it happened by solely crediting the movement to Khayat’s 1997 ban on sticks in the stadium, the backstory of how it all came about—and Tommy Tuberville’s role in making it happen—is often overlooked.
Following a brutal 17-0 loss to Mississippi State in the 1996 Egg Bowl, Khayat met with a devastated Tuberville, who said simply: “We can’t recruit against that flag.”
A few months later, Burson received a call from Khayat, who said he wanted the flags gone.
“I said, ‘Robert, I think you’re smoking pot,'” Burson recalls in a video produced by Big Think.
“I’ve been here for one year (and) I expect to be here for nine more and I want my legacy to be that I made this a great public university,” Khayat said, according to Burson. “As long as those flags are on the ground, on the campus, that will never happen and I don’t want to be regarded that way.”
Burson traveled to Oxford to get opinions from influencers in the community, including that of then-head football coach Tommy Tuberville.
When Burson asked Tuberville if the flags affected the football program, he replied: “They’re killing us.”
“In the state of Mississippi, the best football players are black,” Tuberville said, according to Burson. “With the flags on campus, we’re not getting our share of black players that are going to other schools.”
It was then that Burson told Tuberville he was the “only person who can get the flags off the campus.”
“(Fans would) much rather have a winning football team than to have the flags on the campus,” Burson told him.
Burson, whose work in public relations made him the “godfather” of modern PR, had a firm understanding of the power of compromise. Though Tuberville was hesitant to get involved with the flag issue, Burson urged him to speak publicly as to why Confederate flags held back the football program compared to other universities.
Tuberville’s statement, released before the Rebels’ homecoming game against Vanderbilt, urged students and fans to leave their flags at home, particularly with two nationally televised games coming up on the schedule.
And it worked. Sort of.
A difference was noticed among older fans and alumni, many of whom traded out their Confederate stars and bars for the university’s “Block M” flag, but Tuberville’s message was lost on many students, who responded to the coach’s statements by turning the student section into a divisive sea of red and blue.
It was then that a disappointed Khayat, comforted only slightly by the change seen in other parts of the stadium, decided to take action. He banned sticks from Vaught-Hemingway that season, igniting widespread and lasting controversy regarding the presence of Confederate symbolism at the university that has since resulted in several changes to improve the university’s image.
“Most people want progress, but most people don’t like change,” Khayat said in a 2013 interview with AL.com. “And that just became so apparent. The idea of changing something was traumatic for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. Some of it just had to do with good memories, of days when we were students and had winning football teams. But some of it had to do with hate and this feeling that existed between black and white people.
“Over time, people began to see that the benefit of not having that flag tied to our university, or vice versa, was far more valuable than the enjoyment that anybody received from waving that flag. It was measurably destructive to the university.”
Watch the entire video of Burson’s interview.
Alex McDaniel is the director of content and audience development for Magnolia State Live. She’s also the editorial director at Oxford Newsmedia, where she oversees The Oxford Eagle, Oxford Magazine and special publications.