By Emily Le Coz
JACKSON, Mississippi (Reuters) - The University of Mississippi is offering a $25,000 reward for tips that can help officials identify and arrest two vandals who were spotted draping a noose around the neck of the statue of James Meredith, who braved angry mobs in 1962 to become the school's first African-American student.
A construction worker on the campus in Oxford reported seeing two men wrapping the bronze figure in an old Georgia state flag bearing the Confederate logo, according to University Police Chief Calvin Sellers. The vandals were also heard shouting racial slurs, Sellers said.
Campus police are working with local law enforcement and the FBI to locate the suspects after the incident early on Sunday, and authorities plan to pursue federal hate crime charges, Sellers said on Tuesday.
"If you did this to intimidate or even if intimidation was perceived from people that saw it, and certainly our African-American students would perceive it as that, then it's a hate crime," Sellers said.
The incident has sparked frustration, anger and fatigue at the university known as Ole Miss, which is still struggling to overcome its racially tumultuous past, a school spokesman said.
Riots ensued in 1962 as hundreds of segregationists protested the admission of Meredith, the school's first black student. Two men died and dozens of people were wounded as federal officials escorted Meredith to campus.
In 2012, the campus made national headlines again when a group of students yelled racial slurs at an impromptu protest after President Barack Obama's re-election.
Sellers said he did not believe students were involved in the latest incident, as most likely would have been sleeping at the time it occurred.
University spokesman Danny Blanton said the Ole Miss community was "tired of individuals trying to cast a bad light on the campus. This is not indicative of our creed or what we stand for as a campus community."
The school's alumni association is offering the $25,000 reward at the request of the chancellor, a statement said.
The university has taken steps to shed its past in an effort to welcome all students. The school ditched its sports mascot, Colonel Reb, which many claimed looked like a white plantation owner, for the current mascot, a black bear.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio)
[Image of a hangman's noose on Shutterstock]