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For Ole Miss, prez debate marks school’s progress

Emily Wagster Pettus
For Ole Miss, prez debate marks school’s progress
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., claps during a rally in Charlotte, N.C., on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008. The campaigns of Obama and Republican candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., head to Oxford, Miss., this week for tomorrow’s presidential debate, the first head-to-head encounter of the election season. (Photo: AP /Chris Carlson)

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 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.

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