JACKSON, Miss. – A former University of Mississippi student has been indicted on federal charges connected to a noose being put on a statue of the student who integrated the school, the Justice Department said Friday.
The noose and a former Georgia flag that prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem were placed on the James Meredith statue on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford in February 2014. In 1962, anti-integration protests erupted into violence and Meredith had to be escorted by armed federal agents as he enrolled under court order as the first black student at the university.
The Justice Department said in a news release Friday that Graeme Phillip Harris of Alpharetta, Georgia, has been indicted on one count of conspiracy to violate civil rights and one count of using a threat of force to intimidate African-American students because of their race or color.
"This shameful and ignorant act is an insult to all Americans and a violation of our most strongly-held values," Attorney General Eric Holder said in announcing the indictment.
"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."
It wasn't immediately clear Friday whether Harris had an attorney to contact for comment on his behalf.
Harris, who is white, was an Ole Miss student when the noose was placed on the statue. University spokesman Danny Blanton said Friday that Harris is no longer enrolled and that university officials turned the case over to federal prosecutors and deferred to their judgment.
"It has taken time, but the process has worked and I'm confident justice will be done," Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones said in a statement Friday. "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."
Meredith, 81, told The Associated Press in a phone interview Friday that it is a shame that Mississippi had to rely on federal authorities to prosecute the case.
"What it is saying is that the only possible justice for a black in the state of Mississippi is the federal government and if there's anything that we don't need it's that being our only means of expecting justice," Meredith told AP. "I think Mississippi is better than that. If it's not better than that, it should be made better than that."
The local district attorney said in 2014 that state charges wouldn't be filed because no state laws were broken. Mississippi's hate crime law requires an underlying crime for additional charges. Because the statute wasn't marred or broken, prosecutors said typical vandalism charges didn't apply.
The national office of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity suspended its Ole Miss chapter after three of the chapter's members were accused of leaving the noose and flag on the Meredith statue. Names of the three students from Georgia were not released at the time.
Hundreds of Ole Miss students attended a racial reconciliation rally on campus after the 2014 incident.
The Meredith statue was erected in 2006 near the main administrative building at Ole Miss, the Lyceum. In a 2012 autobiography, Meredith said the university should destroy the statue because he said it trivialized his effort to destroy a system of white supremacy that had long dominated Mississippi, his native state.
"I have become a piece of art, a tourist attraction, a soothing image on the civil rights tour of the South, a public relations tool for the powers that be at Ole Miss, and feel-good icon of brotherly love and racial reconciliation, frozen in gentle docility," Meredith wrote.