Federal civil rights charges are pending against a former student at the University of Mississippi who is accused of hanging a noose and Confederate flag on a statue of James Meredith, the first black student to attend Ole Miss.
Graeme Phillip Harris, 20, of Alpharetta, Ga., was arrested on Friday by deputy U.S. marshals, two days after being indicted by a federal grand jury in northern Mississippi. He was released on an unsecured $10,000 bond after an initial court appearance.
Harris is charged with conspiring to violate the civil rights of others and using a “threat of force to intimidate” black students and faculty at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. A trial date has been set in May, but defense attorney David Hill filed a motion yesterday for a continuance.
Harris is the only one charged at this point, but university officials and the national president of Sigma Phi Epsilon, the fraternity where Harris was a pledge, say three white fraternity members and freshmen at the university, also were involved. The national organization closed its Ole Miss chapter afterward.
The indictment alleges that sometime between the evening of Feb. 15, Harris and at least one other person conspired to “injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate” black students and faculty.
“It was part of the plan and purpose of the conspiracy … for the defendant and his co-conspirators went under cover of darkness to the James Meredith statute … where they symbolically tied a rope around the neck of the statue and draped it in an outdated version of the Georgia state flag, which prominently depicts the Confederate battle flag.”
At the time the noose was discovered, university officials said they were looking for men seen near the statue shouting racial slurs, The Washington Post reported.
Hanging the noose and Confederate flag on the statue “was an attempt to intimidate and interfere with the victims’ exercise of their constitutional rights and enjoyment of a public education at the university,” the indictment says.
The second count in the indictment alleges the act also was a “threat of force” designed to intimidate and interfere with students and faculty at the publicly funded school because of their race and color.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the crime a “shameful and ignorant act (that) 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. “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.”
Authorities aren’t saying why other suspects weren’t indicted with Harris. It’s not unusual, however, in such federal investigation for authorities to target one individual, strike plea agreements and use information obtained as probable cause to indict others.
The Sigma Phi Epsilon national fraternity has publicly said, however, that three of its freshmen members were involved “in the desecration of the James Meredith Statue on the Ole Miss campus.”
“When we did, we (also) learned that the chapter had continued to commit serious acts of hazing since the first membership review three years prior,” said Phillip A. Cox, the grand president of the fraternity. “Even more distressingly, the chapter had made a deliberate and concentrated effort to hide this behavior from their local volunteers, staff members and the university.”