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Exorcising Mississippi's ghosts
Why "Ole Miss" students hope Friday's debate will heal racial wounds from the past.
Last Modified: 26 Sep 2008 02:50 GMT

Oxford, Mississippi was one of the flashpoints of the US civil rights movement [GALLO/GETTY]

For the University of Mississippi, known as "Ole Miss", Friday's presidential debate is a chance for the institution to finally lay to rest ghosts of racial violence from the state's segregated past.

Ole Miss is still known to many for violent protests against the enrolment of the university's first black student, James Meredith, in 1962.

Two people were killed and dozens wounded as shots were fired during one of the key struggles of the civil-rights movement.

But today's students from both sides of the political divide agree that the university has made huge strides away from that period.

And there is hope that the presence of Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate and the first African-American candidate from a major US political party, can draw a line under that history.

"We can't change our history but Barack Obama coming here shows that this is not the Mississippi of 1962 and that we are a different Mississippi that is looking for change," says Brittany Smith, president of the Black Students Union at the university and also a Democrat.

"Things are very progressive at the university now, we've come a long way from the 60s. A lot of the ideas that the students shared then are no longer around now."

Bringing change

In focus

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Steps have been taken by the university, led by chancellor Robert Khayat, a Lebanese-American former American football star and Ole Miss student, to bring about change.

The university colours have been altered so that they are no longer blue and red, the colours of Confederate flag, the civil war symbol of the south's fight to maintain slavery.

The flying of the flag has also been discouraged at games of the university's popular American football team.

And the institution's mascot is also no longer Colonel Reb, a parody of a pre-civil war "southern gentlemen".

"I'm glad that these things were changed as I didn't feel they were representative of me," said Nicole Tisdale, a member of the Black Law Students Association at the university.

"We can't say at one time 'we are moving away from this' if these things are still there."

The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation was also set up to promote dialogue over racial conflict across the state.

Unnerving reminders

Meredith graduated, despite harassment, in 1963 [GALLO/GETTY]
A statue has also been erected in Meredith's honour, sitting alongside the many statues of civil war generals and leaders already present on campus.

Statistics seem to prove that these changes are drawing black students to the university.

About 14 per cent of students who enrolled this year are black - compared to just 5.8 per cent in 1995.

But despite the university's desire to show how much it has changed there remains some unnerving reminders of the campus' bloody past.

The Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist group that has carried out deadly attacks on African-Americans across the south for decades, has said its members will attend the debate.

"White Knights will have officers and Klansmen on hand for the presidential debate on September 26, 2008," a statement sent to the Daily Mississippian newspaper said this week.

"Our people will be in Oxford and on the campus - 'invisible'," it added.

"That means our people won't be in regalia or demonstrating. So, I guess you'll just have to guess which of the people present are Klansmen."

But, despite its bravado, the Klan's membership remains relatively small, with each Mississippi chapter containing only between three and 12 members, according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which monitors the activity of the Klan and other "hate" groups.

Playing 'race card'

"The fact that Senator Obama is on this ticket show you just how far this country has come"

Tyler Craft, president of University of Mississippi Republican party

Even as the country's eyes remain focused on Washington and Wall Street and the financial crisis, race remains a factor in the campaign, and not just in the south.

Bill Clinton, the former president, and Obama entered into heated debate on the issue during the Democratic primary campaign, with Clinton claiming that Obama had played the "race card" in a row on whether Obama could win the presidency.

Many African-Americans fear that underlying white racism could deny Obama victory on November 4 or, worse, that he could be assassinated, as were notable rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr and Malcom X.

And students at Ole Miss admit that the issue could be on some voters' minds in Mississippi on polling day.

"Almost certainly it will play a role," says Tyler Craft, president of the University of Mississippi Republican party.

"But just the fact that Senator Obama is on this ticket show you just how far this country has come."

"These racial issues are dying out - they are a dying breed and we are moving past that," Craft says.

Moving on

Meredith graduated from the university in 1963, despite enduring harassment and abuse from the white students at the university.

And while his struggles highlight violence that accompanied the injustice of segregation, they also underline the victories won by the civil rights movement.

"I was there when they dedicated the statue to James Meredith," says Tisdale.

"And I really think that was something that could not have happened 30 years ago.

"It really shows we have moved on." 

Source:
Al Jazeera
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