by Keith Sanders
Dr. Garrett Felber, a history professor at the University of Mississippi (UM), has distinguished himself over the years as a vocal critic of America’s racist criminological and penological institutions. At conferences and public speaking engagements, he has decried mass incarceration, called for the abolition of prisons, and exposed brutal police tactics that have become the norm in law enforcement. Dr. Felber’s activism, however, is not confined to the country’s prisons and police departments. He also lambasted the University of Mississippi for its connection to slavery and criticized a colleague’s financial involvement with CoreCivic, a private-prison company.
Charles Overby is a celebrated instructor of journalism at UM. Among these other accolades, Overby served as the executive editor of the Jackson, MS newspaper, The Clarion-Ledger, and the chairman and CEO of the Freedom Forum, a non-profit advocate for the freedom of press. In 2001, the Freedom Forum donated $5 million to construct the Overby Center for the Study of Southern Journalism and Politics on UM’s campus. In the same year, Mr. Overby also became the director of the board of the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), later rebranded as CoreCivic. During a Making and Unmaking Mass Incarceration (MUMI) Conference in December 2019, Dr. Felber enlightened his audience with a brief history of UM’s links to the creation of the plantation-like Parchman Prison, as well as Overby’s tenure with CoreCivic.
At the time, the Conference was being held at the Overby Center and, following Ida B. Wells, an eminent Southern journalist who stated that “the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them,” Dr. Felber felt compelled to make the audience aware of the building’s namesake.
The history professor informed those in the Overby Center that Overby’s position with CCA, now CoreCivic, came with “an annual salary and stock options from CoreCivic, and his current shares in the company are nearing $1 .5 million, and he has sold over half a million dollars in stocks.” Dr. Felber seems to have overlooked the fact that CoreCivic was one of many private prison companies found to have given criminal bribes to then Mississippi DOC commissioner Charles Epps in exchange for lucrative prison contracts. Epps went to prison for his corruption but all the companies kept their contracts with the state of Mississippi.
Dr. Felber noted that CoreCivic runs the Tallahatchie County Correctional facility, as well as also having a contract with the Mississippi DOC to house individuals from Parchman Prison who were involved in a violent uprising. The professor further indicated that CoreCivic operates the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez that houses detained immigrants.
The Center saw a significant influx of detainees in 2019 after a Trump administration directive targeting chicken-plant workers in Mississippi rounded up hundreds of migrant workers.
Dr. Felber then implicated the university and its role in mass incarceration. While pointing out that “private prisons are not the primary drivers of mass incarceration” because private prisons only account for about 8% of America’s incarcerated, Dr. Felber emphasized that “if the private prison is a parasite and not a driver, the university is both.”
But the professor did not stop there. “It drives incarceration through exclusionary employment and admissions; by gentrifying neighborhoods; investing in private prison companies; cooperating with epistemologies of violence through its research and curricula,” he added.
The history professor related how the University of Mississippi, which was established in 1848, adopted the nickname Ole Miss, a “reference to a woman enslaver.” He also revealed that UM’s Barnard observatory was named after then-Chancellor Frederick Barnard who owned an enslaved woman named Jane. Jane lived on campus with an estimated 118 other slaves and in 1860 she was sexually assaulted by a UM student.
Dr. Felber concluded that UM “is, and always has been, a political institution. When the University of Mississippi was constructed with enslaved labor to reproduce the wealth and power of a handful of white men, it was political. When it refused to accept Black students, it was political. When it arrested and expelled Black students it did admit, it was political. And as it continues to support and benefit from policing, prisons, and other life-destroying institutions dedicated to upholding white supremacy, extracting capital, and devastating the planet, it is no doubt political.”
Not surprisingly, Dr. Felber was subsequently terminated by UM in December 2020, as well as removing him from consideration for tenure at the university. Of course, the university denied that the history professor’s activism and criticism of both UM and its “acclaimed’’ journalist instructor played a role in his termination. According to UM Provost Noel Wilkin, the history department chair, Noell Wilson, had “lost confidence that an untenured faculty member would act in good faith and be responsive to her repeated efforts to help him succeed.”
Apparently, “good faith” required Dr. Felber to keep his mouth shut about the university so the he could “succeed” at his profession.
Nevertheless, emails obtained by the Mississippi Free Press seem to indicate that Dr. Felber’s termination was indeed retaliatory.
Jim Zook, UM’s chief marketing and communications officer, emailed Overby on December 5, 2019 to inform him about the recent publicity surrounding Dr. Felber’s remarks at the MUMI conference which generated a multitude of tweets containing the hashtags “#MUMI2019,” “#UMPrivatePrisons,” and “#CharlesOverby.”
The email, in part, explained that the “Univ Mktg & Comms team is monitoring activity on the hashtag that emerged this morning from the MUMI conference.”
A year later, when the history department chair Wilson emailed Dr. Felber to notify him that his contract with UM will not be renewed, Wilson accused the professor of not communicating with her. “Your repeated refusal to talk with me makes it impossible for me to maintain a productive working relationship with you or supervise your faculty responsibilities,” the email said.
Other emails obtained by the Free Press, which originated from two whistleblower organizations, Transparent Ole Miss and Ole Miss Information, indicate that Dr. Felber tried to communicate with Noell Wilson several times in November and December 2020.
Those emails also revealed how the university attempted to appease wealthy donors who “expressed racist sentiments or longed for a return to the university’s Confederate-flag waving past,” according to Free Press reporting.
For example, emails document how both Provost Wilkin and Will Norton, then-Dean of Meek School of Journalism School and New Media, concealed the identity of a donor associated with a scandal involving another donor, Ed Meek. Meek had made derogatory comments regarding photos of Black women “enjoying a night out on the town in form-fitting dresses,” the Free Press reported, while adding that UM removed Meek’s name from the school building but did not reveal that a “different donor had taken the photos and sent them to Norton in a series of disparaging emails.”
Norton has since resigned from UM. For his part, Overby expressed concern about how his connection to CoreCivic was represented by Mississippi Today, an online non-profit news outlet which Overby is a board member. In one email dated January 9, 2020, Overby stressed that he was “proud of the affiliation, and Mississippi is very fortunate to have a reputable outlet like CoreCivic to help it deal with its serious prison problem.”
Shortly after, Overby stepped down as a member of Mississippi Today’s board, although Will Norton, who also resigned as a board member of the news outlet, encouraged Overby to stay.
Dr. Felber eventually settled with UM over his termination. He believed his termination partially resulted from the University’s “prioriz(ing) racist donors over all else.” The professor’s attorney claimed that it violated the First Amendment. According to the Mississippi Center for Justice, UM agreed to settle with Dr. Felber for a “confidential amount that avoids a lawsuit and the lengthy legal battle that would have ensued.”
The good doctor is currently at Yale University where he accepted a faculty fellowship in American Studies at the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration. Which seems like a step up from Ole Miss.
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