The statue of James Meredith at Ole Miss (WikiCommons)
The statue of James Meredith at Ole Miss (WikiCommons)

An American university fraternity chapter has been suspended and three freshmen expelled after a noose was placed around the neck of a statue of James Meredith, the first black student at Ole Miss university in Oxford, Mississippi.

Sigma Phi Epsilon said it had decided to suspend its Alpha Chapter indefinitely, and that the names of the three students involved had been handed to investigators.

"It is embarrassing that these men had previously identified with our fraternity," said Brian C Warren Jr, CEO of Sigma Phi Epsilon. "SigEp as a national fraternity has championed racial equality and issues on diversity since 1959 when it became the first national fraternity to invite members of all races, creeds and religions to join."

The incident last Sunday, in which the statue was also draped in an old Georgia state flag containing Confederate colours, has prompted the FBI to investigate whether any federal laws have been violated as the initial vandalism investigation was widened.

When Meredith attempted to enter the university as its first black student in 1962, he was personally blocked by the state governor. This prompted violent demonstrations that left two people dead. The federal government sent 500 state troops to secure the campus and ensure Meredith could enter the school.

The university's authorities said that it had assembled enough evidence to warrant the expulsion of the three students, who are all white, and had handed its file over to the district attorney's office.

"What we want to do is to show this type of action can't take place on this campus. We want to demonstrate that we will not tolerate this type of behaviour," said college spokesman Danny Blanton.

The university is unlikely to press for criminal charges, as the statue was undamaged and the suspects were not trespassing, but federal prosecutors may still do so.

University Chief of Police Calvin Sellers said that a $25,000 (£15,000) reward offered by the Ole Miss Alumni association had been "instrumental in bringing quick results in the investigation, generating numerous leads".

Some believe that the university's authorities need to do more to tackle the institution's reputation for racism and bigotry.

"We don't take ownership of this university," Jonece Dunigan, one of the college's 33% of ethnic minority students told the New York Times. "My life is kind of centered around work and going to school and studying until like three in the morning. The reason why these things happen again and again and again is because we allow them to."

Last September, when a play about the murder of a gay student in Wyoming in 1998 was staged, there was homophobic heckling from the audience.

Racial slurs were hurled and two arrested at a protest at the university on the day of Barack Obama's second inauguration in 2012.

The university was closely tied with the pro-slavery Confederates during the American Civil War (1861-1865), when its student body served as soldiers.