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For Ole Miss, Presidential Debate Marks School’s Progress


Two generations ago, bullets flew and tear gas canisters exploded among the magnolias as segregationists fought federal authorities over the court-ordered admission of the first Black student to the University of Mississippi.

It was the flagship school in what was then the most defiantly white supremacist state in the union. Now, Ole Miss is a diverse university where racial conflict is a topic for history classes rather than a fact of everyday life, and it’s hosting the first presidential debate featuring a Black nominee for a major party.

“I think what we have here is really a confluence of two lines of history, where you have a new Ole Miss, a post-racial Ole Miss, and you have a post-racial Black candidate running for president,” said David Sansing, professor emeritus of history at the university. “Nowhere in America could these two forces reinforce each other as they do here at Ole Miss.”

Democrat Barack Obama ¯ born to a Black African father and White American mother ¯ was a 14-month-old toddler in Hawaii when James Meredith, a 29-year-old Air Force veteran, broke the color barrier at the University of Mississippi in the fall of 1962.

Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat welcomes the Sept. 26 debate between Obama and Republican John McCain as a chance to show the world an up-to-date image of the school. He recognizes that some people’s only impression comes from grainy black-and-white footage from 46 years ago.

“It took a lot of years for the university to get beyond that. But we’ve done it,” said Khayat.

About 20 percent of the school’s 17,601 students this fall are racial minorities; most of the minorities are Black, although the school says it doesn’t track specific numbers. The main campus in Oxford is home to the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, named for an Ole Miss alumnus who was a progressive governor of Mississippi in the early 1980s.

In 2006, the university dedicated a life-sized bronze statue of Meredith near the Lyceum, the white-columned administration building that still bears bullet scars from 1962. The statue stands about 100 yards from a marble figure of a Confederate soldier, erected decades ago to honor students killed in the Civil War.

As on many southern campuses, Ole Miss fraternities and sororities are still largely all-White or all-Black. But it’s common to see racially mixed groups socializing in the cafeteria or playing intramural sports.

Brittney Smith, president of the school’s Black Student Union, said many students don’t know about the integration fight that took place before some of their parents were born. She said university administrators deserve credit for helping promote interaction among students, some of whom attended nearly all-White or all-Black high schools.

Smith, a bubbly 22-year-old, grew up in Oxford. She said that when she visits other colleges in Mississippi, Black students sometimes ask her if she’s scared to attend Ole Miss.

“There’s so many stereotypes about Ole Miss, and I hate it,” said Smith, a senior majoring in chemistry. “I love this school.”

The school’s nickname came originally from the name slaves used for a plantation mistress ¯ she was the “ole miss,” according to “Ever is a Long Time,” a book by one of the university’s graduates, W. Ralph Eubanks. But ask most students or alumni about the history of the phrase, and you’re likely to get a blank stare.

Meredith is now a slender, bearded 75-year-old and lives in Mississippi’s capital city of Jackson. The cancer survivor makes occasional public appearances to call for the eradication of poverty and the development of a national policy to fight AIDS.

Meredith will do interviews about his Ole Miss experience only if journalists sign an agreement to either use or avoid certain language to characterize what happened. The Associated Press declined to sign such an agreement.

Sansing, who has written a history of Ole Miss, notes that the late Mississippi author Willie Morris referred to the events of September and October 1962 as “the last battle of the Civil War.”

Ross Barnett, then Mississippi’s stridently segregationist governor, declared to thousands of Confederate flag-waving Ole Miss fans at a football game in Jackson on Sept. 29, 1962, that integration would never take place on his watch.

Privately, though, Barnett negotiated with President John F. Kennedy. While they spoke by telephone, violence escalated as angry Whites streamed into Oxford, some from hundreds of miles away, to defend what they considered the southern way of life.

Kennedy ordered the National Guard and U.S. marshals to escort Meredith onto campus. Two people ¯ a French journalist and a worker from Oxford ¯ were killed and about 200 were injured.

Meredith himself was unharmed. He graduated in August 1963 with a degree in political science.

William D. Scott III is a chemistry professor nearing retirement at Ole Miss. In autumn 1962, he was a student at historically Black Rust College in nearby Holly Springs. He still remembers standing with other Rust students and cheering the federal vehicles escorting Meredith to campus.

Scott gives the university credit for its efforts to recruit and retain minority students.

“It’s hard to live that history down,” he said.

George Monroe, an attorney and youth court judge in east central Mississippi, was a student living on campus in 1962.

He remembers the sound of tear gas canisters popping, one of them lobbed into his dorm.

“I didn’t want him in there,” Monroe said of Meredith. “I was like most Mississippians. But we were wrong.”

Monroe said his change in feelings came through a gradual process of maturing.

“We all change,” Monroe said. “That’s the good thing about it.”

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