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For Ole Miss, presidential debate marks racial progress

School tries to overcome history of segregation

In this Oct. 2, 1962 photo, students crowded the car carrying James Meredith to the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford. He had to be escorted by the National Guard and US marshals. In this Oct. 2, 1962 photo, students crowded the car carrying James Meredith to the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford. He had to be escorted by the National Guard and US marshals. (Associated Press/File)
By Emily Wagster Pettus
Associated Press / September 21, 2008
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OXFORD, Miss. - 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, not a fact of everyday life, and it is 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 postracial Ole Miss, and you have a postracial 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."

Barack Obama 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 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.

In 2006, the university dedicated a life-size bronze statue of Meredith near a 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 is common to see racially mixed groups socializing in the cafeteria.

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 to promote interaction among students.

Smith, 22, grew up in Oxford. She said that when she visits other colleges in Mississippi, black students sometimes ask her whether she is 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 W. Ralph Eubanks, one of the university's graduates.

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 Kennedy. While they spoke by telephone, violence escalated as angry whites streamed into Oxford to defend what they considered the Southern way of life. Kennedy ordered the National Guard and US marshals to escort Meredith onto campus. Two people - a French journalist and a worker from Oxford - were killed and about 200 were injured.

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

George Monroe, a youth court judge in 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 was gradual. "We all change," he said. "That's the good thing about it."

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