John Hawkins was the first African-American cheerleader at Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi. It was 1982, 20 years after James Meredith, another African-American, tried to enroll at the same University. Riots broke out, hundreds were injured and two died. The Kennedy administration called out 31,000 members of the National Guard to restore order on campus.
In 1982 John Hawkins made a simple decision to act in accordance with who he was, with his deeply held values. Every male cheerleader at Ole Miss carried the Confederate Rebel flag into the game, and many fans in the crowd waved the stars and bars.
Hawkins said he would not carry or wave the flag. He didn’t make a fuss or hold a press conference, but he refused to hold that symbol of anger and hatred.
He broke a long-held tradition. He did not say, “I’ve done enough by breaking down one barrier, I’m just going to go along with this.” He did not say, “I knew this was a part of being a cheerleader.” Instead, he did say, ”While I’m an Ole Miss cheerleader, I’m still a black man. In my household, I wasn’t told to hate the flag, but I did have history classes and know what my ancestors went through and what the Rebel flag represents. It is my choice that I prefer not to wave one.”
Instead, he carried a megaphone and waved it when others waved the flag. The Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Oxford, and marched to the town square in support of the Rebel flag. The parade was attended by about 500 onlookers.
Hawkins did not change his mind. He did not carry the flag. It was a bold move, but one true to his heart. He didn’t change his mind. He held onto his values. The next year, he resigned from the football team. In time, the football coach decided to have only one cheerleader carry the Rebel flag. Fifteen years later, in 1997, the University Provost retired the flag entirely. Hawkins values were deep held, and he never betrayed them. The change was slow to come, but Hawkins waited. He was later elected as head of the African-American student body.
The University acknowledged that the flag did not have a long-standing history of heritage at the University, as it had been adopted in the late 1940s.
The state of Mississippi’s flag still includes the stars and bars. Last week, after a gunman shot and killed nine members of the Emmanuel AME church in South Carolina, Speaker of the Mississippi House Philip Gun publicly called for the removal of the stars and bars from the state flag. Across the state, more and more citizens are flying the old Magnolia flag, used from 1861 to 1894–yes, during the Civil War.
South Carolina still flies the Rebel flag on the grounds of the State House
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens, can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” —Margaret Mead.
––Quinn McDonald is grateful for every human who decides not to go with the crowd when the crowd is heading in the wrong direction.