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Garrett Felber smiling portrait
“I was terminated because of my public statements, including legitimate criticisms of the university. Rather than go to court and seek reinstatement, I have chosen to move on and continue my work from a position outside this university,” University of Mississippi historian Garrett Felber said in a statement on July 29, 2021. The University of Mississippi has denied his allegations. Emails this publication obtained, however, reveal that UM officials shared concerns about some of Felber's public remarks a year before his termination. Photo courtesy University of Mississippi

Emails Show UM Officials’ Concern Over Fired Historian Criticizing Private Prison Ties

Before the University of Mississippi terminated Dr. Garrett Felber, an anti-racist history professor, his public criticisms of its ties to the private-prison industry drew concern from administrators on campus who had monitored social-media activities, emails this publication obtained show. 

After news of Felber’s termination broke in December 2020, Provost Noel Wilkin said it was because 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.” But the historian claimed his termination was retaliation for his activism, his criticisms of administrators’ focus on appeasing wealthy donors, and the university’s role in mass incarceration. Yesterday, Felber’s lawyers announced a settlement with the university.

“I was terminated because of my public statements, including legitimate criticisms of the university. Rather than go to court and seek reinstatement, I have chosen to move on and continue my work from a position outside this university,” Felber said in a statement yesterday with the Mississippi Center For Justice.

Emails this reporter obtained in 2020 show that top-level UM officials were indeed concerned with the history professor’s public comments, including at a 2019 prison abolition conference, which the now-editor of the Mississippi Free Press had covered. At the Dec. 5, 2019, Making and Unmasking Mass Incarceration Conference, Felber drew a line between the university’s history of slavery, its hand in the creation of the slave plantation-like Parchman Prison and one celebrated instructor’s financial ties to a private-prison corporation.

‘A Man Who Leads Dual Lives’

“If we do not dismantle the underlying structures of which prisons and police are simply manifestations, we will surely create newer, crueler, more efficient forms of punishment,” Felber told the audience at the Dec. 5, 2019, Making and Unmaking Mass Incarceration Conference. “Since many of us are housed at universities, even if we do not call them home, I’d like to focus my remarks on our host: The University of Mississippi.”

From the stage of Downtown Oxford’s Lyric Theater that day, Felber explained to participants that the MUMI conference was originally slated to be held in the auditorium of the Overby Center for the Study of Southern Journalism and Politics—a building named for journalist, editor and current UM journalism instructor Charles Overby.

“And I’m going to abide by the greatest journalist the South ever produced, Ida B. Wells, who urged us that the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them,” the history professor said.

Garrett Felber stands at a podium with an image of Charles Overby and the CoreCivic logo projected on a screen above
At the Dec. 5, 2019, Making and Unmaking Mass Incarceration Conference at the Lyric Theater in Downtown Oxford, Miss., historian Garrett Felber walked the audience through Charles Overby’s ties to private prison corporation CoreCivic. Photo by Donna Ladd

Felber then recited Overby’s history, starting with his time as the editor of UM’s student newspaper in 1969. During his career, Overby served as the executive editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. Later, he was the CEO and chairman of The Freedom Forum, a nonprofit that advocates for the free press, from 1989 to 2011. During Overby’s tenure, The Freedom Forum donated $5 million to establish the Overby Center on UM’s campus in 2001.

“The Freedom Forum’s guiding principles are free speech, free press and free spirit. As you can see inscribed in the middle of the Overby Center, it is dedicated to the education and maintenance of the First Amendment,” Felber continued. “But that same year in 2001, Overby also became the director of the board of CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America, now rebranded as CoreCivic, the second largest private-prison company in the nation.

“Since then, Overby has received 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,” the history professor stated.

Felber quoted from a Prison Legal News article that described Charles Overby as “a man who leads dual lives, a man who has each foot planted firmly in very different worlds.”

“For not only is CoreCivic a behemoth in private prisons, but it also successfully lobbied against the Private Prison Information Act of 2007, which would have made private prisons open to freedom of information requests,” Felber told the audience.

The history professor pointed out that CoreCivic runs the Adams County Detention Center, a prison in Natchez where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement houses hundreds of detained immigrants. In 2019, the Trump administration executed the largest single-day immigration worksite raid in history, targeting chicken-plant workers in six Mississippi towns; ICE transferred many of the arrested to the CoreCivic facility in Adams County.

“Now, I should stress, as many here know, that private prisons are not the primary drivers of mass incarceration. They represent 8% of the pie. They are fundamentally parasitic. But if the private prison is a parasite and not a driver, the university is both,” Felber continued amid applause from the audience. “It drives incarceration through exclusionary employment and admissions; university policing; by gentrifying neighborhoods; investing in private-prison companies; cooperating with epistemologies of violence through its research and curricula.”

Charles Overby laughs with his hands out on stage at the Overby Center
Charles Overby, left, is the namesake for the Overby Center, where the 2019 MUMI Conference was originally slated to be held. Photo courtesy Ole Miss Communications

Today, CoreCivic representatives were not available for interviews, but on its website, CoreCivic says it “is committed to providing high quality, compassionate treatment to all those in our care.”

“Under CoreCivic Safety we operate safe facilities that provide education and effective reentry programming to help individuals make positive changes so they can return to the community successfully,” CoreCivic’s “Our Mission” page states. Core Civic says it provides “evidence-based programs like educational, vocational, substance abuse and faith-based offerings to help inmates develop the skills and values they need to be successful when they leave prison.”

In addition to the Adams County Detention Facility in Natchez, CoreCivic operates the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in northwest Mississippi. Since January 2020, the Mississippi Department of Corrections has contracted with CoreCivic to house hundreds of Parchman prisoners following deadly violence at the state penitentiary.

UM Officials Were ‘Monitoring’ MUMI Tweets

Felber’s remarks at the 2019 conference lit up social media. A flurry of tweets under the hashtags, “#MUMI2019,” “#UMPrivatePrisons” and “#CharlesOverby quickly appeared, including some from students and Oxford residents as well as out-of-town attendees from around the country.

“Stand in solidarity with the students fighting to get profits from private prisons off of University campuses! Help spread the word about #CharlesOverby,” an attendee from Chicago tweeted at 9:14 a.m.

Jim Zook portrait
“I’ve discussed this with Noel as well, and we certainly don’t support this type of personal targeting of members of our community,” UM Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Jim Zook said in a Dec. 5, 2019, email to Charles Overby.

Students Against Social Injustices, a UM student organization, tweeted that the Overby connection was an example of “@OleMissRebels proving once again that they would rather prioritize their relationships with the businesspeople exploiting Mississippians than the Mississippians themselves.”

Officials in the University of Mississippi Office of Communications & Marketing, along with some in the School of Journalism and New Media, watched with concern as more and more tweets about the university and the private prison industry rolled in. A batch of emails the Mississippi Free Press obtained from a group of anonymous whistleblowers who acquired them through a public-records request show that then-journalism school Dean Will Norton shared Overby’s contact information with Jim Zook, UM’s chief marketing and communications officer.

“Hi Charles — I want to let you know that our Univ Mktg & Comms team is monitoring activity on the hashtag that emerged this morning from the MUMI conference,” Zook wrote in an email to Overby at 12:21 p.m. on Dec. 5, 2019. “The uptake seems to be confined to conference attendees and their sympathizers at this point, but we all know how quickly that can change.

A screenshot of an email shows Jim Zook emailing Charles Overby about Garrett Felber's remarks at the MUMI conference. The text of the email is in the story
UM Chief Marketing and Communication Officer Jim Zook’s email to Charles Overby was one among thousands that the UM Emails whistleblowers uncovered in 2020.

“I’ve discussed this with Noel as well, and we certainly don’t support this type of personal targeting of members of our community,” he continued, referencing the provost, Noel Wilkin. “At the same time, we don’t want to do anything proactive that would elevate it further, but we will continue to evaluate that approach as events warrant.”

Mississippi Free Press Editor Donna Ladd, who then still the editor-in-chief of the Jackson Free Press in 2019, wrote about Felber’s speech at the MUMI conference and Overby’s CoreCivic ties in a Dec. 18, 2019, column for that publication.

Wilkin: Firing Unrelated To Felber’s Activism

A year later, in an unusual move, the university terminated Felber’s contract as a tenure-track assistant professor, telling him he would leave the university in a year and would not be considered for tenure.

“Your employment with the University will end on December 31, 2021, and your employment contract will not be renewed after that date,” History Department Chair Noel Wilson wrote to Felber on Dec. 10, 2020. “… Respectfully, your effort to dictate or restrict the means by which I communicate with you is untenable. 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.”

In a Dec. 7, 2020, letter, University of Mississippi Provost Noel Wilkin (pictured) suggested that an international outcry over the firing of Dr. Garrett Felber, a historian known for his anti-racism and anti-mass incarceration work, was “tied to stereotypes of our institution’s past.” Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

But last year, Felber provided this publication with documents showing that he did communicate with Wilson multiple times in December and November 2020. After Christian Middleton broke the story in the Mississippi Free Press on Dec. 15, 2020, thousands of academics around the world signed a petition in support of Felber, decrying his termination as an attack on academic freedom.

In response to a critical letter from American Historical Association President Mary Lindemann on Jan. 7, 2021, Provost Wilkin said the “non-renewal decision was not motivated by or in any way related to the topics of Dr. Felber’s research, including the history of the carceral state and race, or his work with those who are incarcerated.” Wilkin, in fact, opened the 2019 MUMI conference by introducing Felber to the audience.

“I want to thank Provost Noel Wilkin for those remarks and for his support of this conference,” Felber said as he opened his remarks at the Lyric Theater on Dec. 5, 2019. “It’s not lost upon me that having the support of the provost for a conference like this at the University of Mississippi is a big deal, so thank you to Noel for that.”

Emails: Overby Upset With CoreCivic Reporting

In the year that transpired between the MUMI conference and Felber’s firing, two groups of whistleblowers, Transparent Ole Miss and Ole Miss Information, obtained a trove of thousands of emails from the university. Many of those emails, first reported in this publication’s UM Emails series last fall, showed that some officials at the university had labored to appease donors who expressed racist sentiments or longed for a return to the university’s Confederate-flag waving past. 

The series also revealed that UM officials, including Wilkin and then-Meek School of Journalism School and New Media Dean Will Norton, knew that another donor was involved in the scandal involving donor Ed Meek. After Meek made a critical Facebook post that included photos of Black women enjoying a night out on the town in form-fitting dresses, the university removed his name from the school building (but without revealing that a different donor had taken the photos and sent them to Norton in a series of disparaging emails).

“Please do not step down, Charles. You are too important for Mississippi Today,” UM Journalism School Dean and Mississippi Today board member Will Norton wrote in a Jan. 10, 2020, email to Charles Overby. In the months afterward, though, Norton would step down as dean and, soon after, from Mississippi Today’s board. Photo courtesy Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

The trove included Zook’s Dec. 5, 2019, email to Overby about the MUMI conference. It also showed that in the months immediately after the conference, the Overby Center’s namesake had expressed concerns about media reports that included his ties to CoreCivic. As a member of Mississippi Today’s board of directors, he was unhappy after the online nonprofit news publication disclosed his ties to the private-prison company in its story related to CoreCivic.

“Friends, I see that Mississippi Today editors thought it necessary to insert my board affiliation with CoreCivic in the latest prison story. I am proud of that affiliation, and Mississippi is very fortunate to have a reputable outlet like CoreCivic to help it deal with its serious prison problems,” Overby wrote to four of his fellow board members on Jan. 9, 2020.

The recipients were board members Will Norton, who stepped down from the board shortly before the Meek School emails became public; Donna Barksdale, Mississippi Today’s executive chair; Jim Barksdale, the president of Barksdale Management Corporation; and Andrew Lack, Mississippi Today’s founder and the then-chairman of NBC. (Lack stepped down from NBC in May 2020 after accusations swirled that NBC executives killed Ronan Farrow’s story on Harvey Weinstein).

“The Mississippi prison story is unlikely to go away anytime soon so I am offering my resignation from the Mississippi Today board to make sure the editors and writers don’t feel a need to explain this ongoing perceived conflict,” Overby continued in his Jan. 9, 2020, email to the Mississippi Today board members. “I Am [sic] happy to step down with no rancor. But I do suggest that Mississippi Today look at its conflict policy.”

Overby sent the email at 11 p.m. The next morning, Norton replied with a simple plea: “Please do not step down, Charles. You are too important for Mississippi Today.”

On Jan. 13, Donna Barksdale sent Overby a similar message, telling him not to “even think about stepping away from our board.”

“I cannot imagine why or who put that disclaimer out but I am sorry about it. … You are a critical part of our group. We cannot do without your perspective and wisdom,” she wrote.

Neither Donna Barksdale nor Charles Overby responded to requests for comment for this story.

After the Transparent Ole Miss whistleblower group made its public-records request in March 2020, Norton offered to resign, asking other university officials if they thought him doing so would convince the group to relent. The university turned over the emails to the whistleblowers later that month. In April 2020, the whistleblowers sent this publication’s editor and journalists at several other outlets copies of the most shocking emails related to the Meek affair. Norton announced in late April 2020 that he was stepping down as dean.

This reporter then obtained thousands more emails from the whistleblowers, including the ones quoted in this story, and made multiple attempts to contact Norton last summer. After resigning as journalism dean, Norton also resigned his position on Mississippi Today’s board in July 2020, just a few weeks before the publication of the UM Emails exposé.

‘Felber’s Termination Violated The First Amendment’

After the Mississippi Free Press published the initial three-part exposé on the story behind the September 2018 scandal and wealthy donors’ outsize influence at UM, Felber criticized the university in a series of tweets, accusing them of “prioriz(ing) racist donors over all else.”

Felber said that Wilson, the history department chair, had rejected a $42,000 grant he had applied for that would have funded a political education project on mass incarceration and immigrant detention.

“What it does, it has a chilling effect on the ability of faculty and other people within the university to do anti-racist work. Because the university seems to be responding to the will of donors who by my definition are racist,” Felber told Mississippi Free Press reporter Christian Middleton last year, weeks before his contract’s termination.

Garrett Felber speaks into a microphone in front of a crowd
“My employment for the University of Mississippi brought me to the state where I now consider many organizers and colleagues part of my family. Terminating that appointment does not end my commitment to fighting alongside them to abolish white supremacy and state violence,” historian Garrett Felber said. Photo courtesy UM Communications

The Mississippi Center For Justice statement yesterday said that Felber and UM “have reached a settlement for a confidential amount that avoids a lawsuit and the lengthy legal battle that would have ensued.” The historian has accepted a faculty fellowship at Yale University in American Studies at the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration.

“We believe that Dr. Felber’s termination violated the First Amendment,” one of Felber’s attorneys, Rob McDuff, said in the Mississippi Center For Justice statement yesterday. “This all went down after his very pointed criticisms of the university. The reasons given for the university’s decision don’t hold up, and Dr. Felber had an excellent record as a teacher and a faculty member, including stellar reviews from his department chair. But litigation takes a long time, and Dr. Felber’s decision to focus on continuing his important work in the future makes total sense.”

The other attorney, Naomi R. Shatz of the Boston law firm Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein LLP, concurred.

“We are concerned by recent instances of universities across the country ignoring and violating their faculty members’ rights to free speech and academic freedom. Professors like Dr. Felber have a constitutional right to speak out about injustices they see in their institutions,” Shatz said. “The University’s decision has deprived it not only of an excellent professor, but of a valued member of its community.”

Felber: ‘Which Side Are You On?’

During the 2019 MUMI conference, Felber talked about UM’s racist past, noting that “the name Ole Miss is in reference to a woman enslaver,” an allegation that local historic news archives back up.

“When the University of Mississippi opened its doors in 1848, like most universities of the 19th century, it was dedicated to consolidating generational wealth amongst a handful of white men, but it was also an open-air prison,” he told the audience at The Lyric in December 2019. 

Felber noted that an estimated 118 enslaved people lived on the campus in 1860 and told the story of one enslaved woman on campus named Jane, who then-Chancellor Frederick Barnard owned. A UM student sexually assaulted her. The Barnard observatory today bears that chancellor’s name. Felber also pointed out that Vardaman Hall is named for former Mississippi Gov. James Vardaman, the “architect of Parchman Farm” and “a proponent of lynching and an enemy of Black education.”

James K Vardaman
James K. Vardaman, a former Mississippi speaker of the House, governor and U.S. senator, seen here in 1912, was known as “The Great White Chief” for his unwavering defense of white supremacy. He established Parchman Farm, modeling it after a slave plantation. It is now the Mississippi State Penitentiary near the CoreCivic private prison in Tallahatchie County in the Mississippi Delta. Photo courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

“(Parchman) was also Vardaman’s sporting grounds,” Felber said in 2019. “As David Oshinsky recounts, the governor enjoyed a mock hunt where a prisoner was given a morning’s head start before they released bloodhounds, and they began hunting him.”

Since 2020, the Mississippi Department of Corrections has contracted with CoreCivic to house Parchman inmates in its private facilities following an outbreak of violence at the penal farm.

At the December MUMI conference, Felber also pointed to Fulton Chapel on campus where, just a year after Charles Overby became the editor of the student newspaper, members of the Black Student Union disrupted a concert and gave the Black Power salute. State police responded by arresting 90 students who represented almost half of the university’s entire Black student body at the time. Authorities sent many of them to Parchman. 

“To intimidate student activists, eight of them were expelled … and the rest were put on 10 years’ probation,” Felber told the Dec. 5, 2019, MUMI audience.

In his statement yesterday about the settlement, Felber once again raised some of the historic injustices he had mentioned at the MUMI conference—and once again insisted that his termination was a political decision.

“My employment for the University of Mississippi brought me to the state where I now consider many organizers and colleagues part of my family. Terminating that appointment does not end my commitment to fighting alongside them to abolish white supremacy and state violence,” he said. 

“The university 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.”

Felber called for a university politics that can “be just, noble and life affirming.”

“And I remain in humble solidarity with all those working to make the state’s flagship university serve the people of Mississippi, who have demanded to know, simply and firmly, again and again: which side are you on?”

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