I’ve never been in the military or law enforcement, so I can’t say that I fully understand the strong bonds that I’m told exist among these public servants. Some say it’s the daily camaraderie that knits these men and women together. Others credit the presence of danger in crisis that forges these attachments. Which, of any of these, is responsible, I don’t know.
What I do know and can say for certain is that this past Thursday (July 21), I did see, hear and feel the strength in numbers as several University of Mississippi administrators, faculty, staff and students joined together to show unity and encourage respect for diversity in humanity.
The meeting, the first of several such planned, was led by Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter. In the early evening hours, dozens of people gathered quietly inside the Paris-Yates Chapel. As the sun slowly began to set, these individuals sat together as one.
Vitter opened the solemn ceremony with reflections upon the epidemic rash of violence both in major cities around the nation and in terrorist attacks across the globe. He recognized the inherit conflict between African-American/Latino populations and law enforcement officials who have sworn to protect them.
“It has been an extremely difficult month in the U.S. as we have witnessed the loss of lives in Orlando, my home state of Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas,” Vitter said. “We also join the world community in mourning recent deaths in France and Turkey. We all hurt, we all mourn with those directly affected and we all worry every day about the safety of our own families, our communities, our nation and the world.”
While the evening’s focus was on reflecting and healing, Vitter issued a call for community conversations that move forward positive and permanent change.
“We must stand together, work together to find lasting solutions to the challenges that we face together,” he said.
Following the chancellor’s remarks, UM Staff Council President Sovent Taylor introduced representatives from the campus community. And although each individual represented differing ethnicities, cultures, languages, religions, creeds and philosophies, they stood as one while all present acknowledged our common ground as the tenets of the UM Creed were read.
The UM Gospel Choir rendered a beautiful a cappella rendition of “Get On Board,” a melodic call to temporarily set aside our differences in the interests of the common good. Don Cole, assistant to the chancellor for multicultural affairs, gave brief remarks in which he echoed Vitter’s call for the UM community to begin and maintain ongoing civil dialogue about the matters at hand.
“I may not have the answers,” Cole said. “You may not have all the answers. But together, we can and we will find the answers that we need.”
A solemn moment of silence preceded the tolling of chapel bells. As the chimes rang 16 times, we stood together, hand-in-hand, and collectively mourned with and comforted one another as we remembered the lives of the many victims killed in a wave of intense violence that appears to be sweeping across the nation.
Ethel Young-Scurlock, senior fellow at the Luckyday Residential College, offered the closing prayer before inviting members of the interfaith community to remain for a brief period of prayer and reflection. Smiles and warm embraces were exchanged as individuals both came into and departed from the building.
Throughout the evening’s activities, I felt awe as the combined members of the UM community “fleshed out” the words of our Creed. It was a beautiful sight to behold as compassionate and civil discourse unfolded, overshadowing obvious tensions and fears.
Recently, the UM Sensitivity and Respect Committee and university leadership issued a statement. Within this document appeared the following words:
“As an academic institution, we realize that education will serve as a key component to prevent future occurrences of such acts as well as serve as a healing mechanism for our community. We ask all members of our campus to join in applying the most effective tool of the educator – civil dialogue – in addressing the issues leading up to these disturbing events and processing our emotions and reactions to these tragedies.
However, civil dialogue will mean nothing if it does not lead to change for the better, and it will be our students who will be at the forefront of that change.
As Vitter stated in a recent post, ‘We are all bound together by the human need to be known, understood, and valued. At the University of Mississippi, we embody these mutual commitments to one another in the UM Creed, a part of which states our belief in fairness and civility and in the respect for the dignity of each person. I urge all members of the UM family to embody these beliefs as we reach out to one another in the coming days.'”
Thursday was a good start. I join many others who sincerely hope that similar discussions leading to solutions and healing occur at future gatherings.
Together, we stood. Together, we will continue to stand. Together, we are the University of Mississippi.