OXFORD, Miss. — As the news began to percolate that pro-Confederate and white supremacist groups were planning to march at the University of Mississippi last Saturday, Devontae Shuler was becoming increasingly anxious. The violence that had unfolded at similar events in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 had crossed his mind, a menacing video was circulating on social media and Shuler wondered if he and other African-Americans might somehow become targets of physical attacks.
So, last Friday, he did what he often does when something troubles him: He called his mother.
Linda Shuler patched in her oldest son, D.J., and they listened as Devontae, a sophomore guard on the Ole Miss basketball team, relayed the depths of his feelings. Troubled by the mood on campus, he was considering sitting out his team’s game against Georgia. His brother, though, noted an action like that was more likely to punish his team, and himself.
Perhaps, D.J. Shuler suggested, he could take a knee during the national anthem instead. Devontae said he would think it over. The next afternoon, shortly before the game, Linda’s phone rang.
“He said, ‘Momma, I’m going to do it,’” Linda said.
Since Colin Kaepernick first knelt for the national anthem during an N.F.L. exhibition game more than two years ago, his calibrated gesture — meant to call attention to racism, social injustice and police brutality against people of color — has evolved into a broader distress signal. High school teams have used the gesture to show support for their minority peers. Notre Dame students invoked it as an expression of faith. And Jewish students in South Africa even did it during Israel’s national anthem to show support for Palestinians.
At Ole Miss, however, a place steeped in the history of civil rights and racism in the United States, the gesture hewed closer to Kaepernick’s aim, directed at a specific race-related incident on campus that the players wanted to protest.
But in a broader sense, said Brian Foster, an assistant professor of sociology and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi, the gesture has become about one word:
“Agency,” said Foster, who studies race, culture, inequality and the rural South. “It signifies the capacity for anyone, but especially black folks, to make a personal claim, to take a stance about an injustice that they think should be different or is unfair.”
In that vein, Shuler — in his first public comments since Saturday’s protest — affirmed in two interviews this week what Breein Tyree, one of the seven teammates who followed him in taking a knee, and his coach, Kermit Davis, had said after Saturday’s game: The gesture was directed only at what was happening on campus last weekend.
ImageSix Mississippi basketball players took a knee during most of the national anthem before their game against Georgia on Saturday. Two others joined them during the song.CreditNathanael Gabler/The Oxford Eagle, via Associated Press
“I felt like I needed to stand up for my rights for righteousness sake,” Shuler said. “My emotions were just for the students. I didn’t want anything to happen with us playing that game while the protest was going on. I felt like I couldn’t pass that moment by without making a difference.”
He said he was not planning on taking a knee Wednesday night when the Rebels hosted seventh-ranked Tennessee, and the entire team stood for the anthem.
“It’s definitely a one-time thing,” he said.
What surprised some was that Shuler and the seven teammates who joined him in taking a knee received forceful backing from Davis, their coach, and from Ross Bjork, the athletic director. In a sign of how delicate the issue of kneeling during the national anthem is, especially in a state like Mississippi, Davis said in his introduction as coach last year that his team would not only play fast and smart, but also respect the flag and the national anthem.
Davis, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this article, but Bjork said in an interview that the kneeling had little to do with the flag. “In no way, shape or form was Saturday a reflection of that,” Bjork said. “It was a show of courage knowing there were people who didn’t agree with this type of platform. They were standing up against people who don’t belong here, that don’t define their experiences at Ole Miss.”
If symbolism and history are never far from each other in the South, in Mississippi they are often intertwined. And in this quaint college town, home to the state’s flagship university, they seem inextricable.
The chancellor’s office is housed in the Lyceum, a Greek Revival building that was built by slaves before the Civil War. Behind it is a sculpture commemorating James Meredith, whose enrollment as the school’s first African-American student in 1962 touched off riots that left two dead. In front of the Lyceum, across a grass oval, stands a towering memorial to Confederate soldiers.
While several other Confederate monuments have come down in recent years, the one here and another in front of the courthouse on Oxford’s square remain. The campus monument has a plaque that is meant to provide context, explaining that it is a reminder of the university’s divisive past.
ImageMississippi Coach Kermit Davis, right, said when he was hired that his players would respect the flag and the anthem. He supported their decision to kneel last weekend.CreditMark Humphrey/Associated Press
The plaque itself is symbolic, too, a reminder of how change arrives here: incrementally.
Since the late 1990s, Ole Miss has banned Confederate flags at football games, replaced the Colonel Reb mascot with a bear named Reb and refused to fly the state flag — which includes Confederate stars and bars — on campus. The university band no longer plays “Dixie,” a Southern folk song with minstrel roots, at sporting events.
Yet when a student group, Students Against Social Injustice, began pushing the university to remove a Confederate statue late last year, the talks spurred two pro-Confederate groups — which included some people who participated in the 2017 Charlottesville rally — to plan Saturday’s march in defense of the two monuments.
In a letter to students, faculty and staff members last week, the university’s interim chancellor, Larry Sparks, wrote that while the university administration condemns racism, bigotry and hatred, the public spaces on campus are open for people to express their views, even if they are found to be offensive and contrary to the university’s pursuits. Discussions about removing the Confederate monument, meanwhile, crawl along.
“Movements for change and resistance do seem to happen in a more amplified or concentrated way here,” said Foster, who earned his undergraduate degree at Ole Miss. “Those easy metrics of change always come at the hands and the feet of young people, folks that dare to be brave and forward and do the things that are uncomfortable — especially with respect to the administration and people of power on this campus.”
One of those people is Shadoria Anderson, who graduated two years ago and is a missionary for the Chi Alpha student ministry. Outside the political science building on Monday, she and students encouraged passers-by to write their thoughts on a series of boards that posed a question: “Racial Reconciliation: What’s Your Dream?”
Though Saturday’s demonstration, which drew about 60 pro-Confederate demonstrators, turned out to be largely uneventful, Anderson said it created a great deal of tension for people of color on campus. She lauded the basketball players for taking a knee before their game, which gave a local issue a broader platform.
“Our athletes are held in high regard on campus — they’re celebrities,” Anderson said.
“A lot of people are afraid to ‘Colin Kaepernick,’” she added, using shorthand for kneeling during the anthem, “so I was very pleased. This helps the conversation when they say, ‘Yes, I’m a basketball player, but I’m not going to sit here and dance for you. I’m going to take a stand.’ ”
ImageProtesters last Friday calling for the removal of a Confederate statue on the University of Mississippi campus.CreditBruce Newman/The Oxford Eagle, via Associated Press
That Shuler was the catalyst was not easy to see coming.
Growing up in Irmo, S.C., he was the second youngest of eight children, always reserved but sweet, according to his mother, and seemingly without a care in the world other than dragging D.J. out of bed on Saturday mornings to go play basketball. If Shuler, as he grew older, understood why N.B.A. and N.F.L. players had begun to speak out on social injustices, he had hardly been engaged in such matters at Ole Miss.
In fact, he said, he did not know where the Confederate statue stood.
“I heard people talking about it, but I never really paid attention,” he said.
In recent weeks, though, he began to listen as the rhetoric around the pro-Confederate march built. He began to think about his good friend growing up, a boy nicknamed Diesel, who was shot and killed when they were sophomores in high school. His mother canceled plans to attend Saturday’s game because she did not feel safe, she said.
Last week, Shuler said he engaged in regular discussions with several teammates, including the senior D.C. Davis and the juniors Zach Naylor and Brian Halums, about the coming demonstration.
All of that influenced his call home last Friday.
When Shuler dropped to a knee along the free-throw line, he closed his eyes and prayed that there would be no violence at the demonstration. He also prayed for Diesel. He said he did not realize that for the first minute of the anthem he was protesting alone. Then five other players — the seniors Bruce Stevens and Davis, Halums and the freshmen Luis Rodriguez and K.J. Buffen — joined him. Those images soon spread on social media.
A moment later, Tyree nodded to his teammate Franco Miller and they dropped down as well. Two other teammates stood with their hands on the shoulder of a kneeling player, a sign of solidarity that Shuler said he could feel.
“The whole time they were telling me, if I was going to kneel, they weren’t going to leave me by myself,” said Shuler, who later hit a tiebreaking 3-pointer in a 72-71 win over Georgia that solidified the Rebels’ hopes for an N.C.A.A. Tournament berth.
“I already knew once I went down, after the anthem was over, I’d be there with my teammates,” Shuler said. “Once I got up, I didn’t think about it. I got it off my chest, and honestly, I started playing better. I was nervous, but I had to overcome it. That was something I wanted to do.”