A Georgia man faces federal charges for allegedly vandalizing a statue of civil rights icon James Meredith last year on the campus of the University of Mississippi.
A federal grand jury Friday indicted Alpharetta resident Graeme Phillip Harris for what Attorney General Eric Holder called a “shameful and ignorant act” and “an insult to all Americans.”
Harris, then a freshman at Ole Miss, and two other freshmen were identified as suspects in the vandalism of the statue in the early morning of Feb. 16, 2014. The three men, all from Georgia, were kicked off campus amid a joint investigation by campus police and the FBI.
Along with placing a noose around the statue’s neck, Harris is accused of draping it with an old version of the Georgia state flag, which prominently features the Confederate battle emblem. Harris faces one count of conspiracy to violate civil rights and one count of using a threat of force to intimidate African-American students.
So far, only Harris has been charged, but the Justice Department said the investigation is ongoing.
“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.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was not able to reach Harris. It was not initially clear whether Harris has an attorney.
Meredith, who became the first black student to attend Ole Miss in 1962, told The Associated Press it is a shame Mississippi had to rely on the federal government to bring charges.
University Chancellor Dan Jones praised the process and the reaction of the university community. Following the incident, students at Ole Miss staged demonstrations at the statue repudiating the act.
“It has taken time, but the process has worked, and I’m confident justice will be done,” Jones said. “I am thankful for the strong, united response of our university community to the desecration of the James Meredith statue last year, confirming our university values of civility and respect.”
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Brandi Hephner LaBanc said the indictment will help heal the university.
“I can’t help but feel the pain of the student and the parents who will now feel the full weight of our justice system, but also feel the pain of our campus community and the entire Ole Miss family, which suffered greatly from the terrible act committed a year ago,” she said.
An Ole Miss spokeswoman said Harris withdrew from the university shortly after he was identified as a suspect.
Harris and the other two students were members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. Shortly after the incident, the national fraternity closed the Ole Miss chapter, citing poor academic performance and “serious acts of hazing.”
Earlier this month, on the national fraternity’s website, a former grand president of the fraternity issued a call for chapters to work toward more diverse membership.
“Today each of us recognizes the value and importance of diversity,” Bruce Hasenkamp wrote. “Despite this, we occasionally fall short.”
Hasenkamp’s article was posted shortly after another fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, faced scrutiny when a video surfaced of students at its Oklahoma University chapter engaging in a racist chant.
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