JACKSON (Miss.) -- Tyler Daniel said he was shocked and horrified to see a poster with the Mississippi State University President's face covered in an Adolf Hitler mustache and a swastika in the upper corner.
Another sign was posted on Tuesday at Starkville's campus. It read "Heil State", with the "s" being replaced by a swastika. "Hail State," a fight song and an athletic rallying cry, is the name of the public institution that has about 23,000 students.
According to Daniel, the president of Hillel, a campus Jewish student organization, "We didn’t know what these symbols meant." He told The Associated Press Friday. "We didn’t know why they were there – if there was danger. It was extremely frightening to us."
According to the Ph.D student, the 24-year-old said that he discovered the signs as a protest against university policies mandating COVID-19 vaccines for faculty and staff.
Monday's vote by Mississippi's public universities to mandate that all employees are vaccinated against COVID-19 was a result of President Joe Biden's executive order mandating that employees working for federally contracted companies and institutions be vaccinated. Similar decisions are being made by other universities in the U.S.
Although 75% of Mississippi State employees are already vaccinated this news was not received well by all workers.
Daniel claimed that he spoke with the man who was holding the sign bearing the defaced photograph of Mississippi State President Mark Keenum. According to him, the man said that a mandate for vaccines is similar to Nazism. Daniel stated that he explained to them why the vaccine mandate was so offensive and frightening for students and that they were able come to an understanding.
Daniel stated, "It is so important to be patient, have understanding, have strength, and condemn what is wrong." When you are approached by people who did wrong, it is important to take the time and explain to them why they did what they did.
Daniel and other Hillel board members released a statement stating that COVID-19 safety requirements "not at all similar to the horrors Nazism and must not be diminished in any way."
It read, "To all those who put up the signs, we urge you to become familiar with the terribleness of the Holocaust so that you can understand why including Nazi imagery in your political messaging is completely inappropriate."
Daniel stated that the Mississippi State Jewish community, though small, is active, and very vibrant. He stated that anti-Semitism on campus is very rare and that his organization is supported by the community.
Sid Salter, a Mississippi State spokesperson, told the AP that around 30 to 35 protesters marched on Drill Field on Tuesday. It is a green space located in the middle of campus. According to him, school officials believed that participants were a mixture of students and outsiders as well as employees from Mississippi State.
The majority of signs didn't mention Nazism. Daniel stated that the sign with the Keenum photograph was being held by someone in the crowd. Some others were scattered around Research Park, which is home to many research institutions.
Mark Murphy, a research associate at the Mississippi State Department of Forestry, stated that he did not use Nazi symbols in the protest and apologized to Daniel.
Murphy sent an email saying that Murphy had no control over the sign-makers or attendees. Murphy wrote in an email that "that was and isn't our message." We oppose this unconstitutional mandate.
Salter stated that the university doesn't interfere with students exercising their free speech on campus "even if it is sometimes offensive."
Keenum's response was prompt and concise.
Keenum wrote to Hillel, "I condemn use of these images within that setting -- in whatever setting -- on MSU campus or anywhere," "There's no place for such egregious displays."