At Ole Miss, a Valedictory to the Old South
The candidates may be surprised at what they find at the 2008 Presidential Debates
Sunday, September 21, 2008; B03
The first thing you see as you approach the campus of the University of Mississippi, in the town of Oxford, is a 100-year-old statue of a Confederate soldier that stands in front of a grand, columned building know as the Lyceum. This is the university's administration building and the heart of "Ole Miss." It is also the spot where, 46 years ago, a riot broke out when James Meredith became the first black student to enroll in the university.
Now, this coming Friday, Ole Miss will record another historic first, as Sen. Barack Obama comes to campus for an initial debate with Sen. John McCain. As a black man and an Ole Miss grad, I'm overwhelmed by the symbolism of watching the first black man nominated for president by a major political party walk the campus grounds, past the bullet holes you can still see in the Lyceum's walls.
When I was a student at Ole Miss just 12 years after Meredith walked through the Lyceum doors, I often heard the university's integration referred to as simply "the incident." In the early 1970s, the emotional wounds from 1962 were still raw and festering, and the subject was something you discussed only in whispers. But much has changed since then, and a symbol of that change is the Ole Miss civil rights memorial, which stands on the other side of the Lyceum, almost perfectly aligned with the Confederate memorial.
So, in the same way, has a great deal changed in the broader South. To many Americans, this region of the country remains a separate land with its own unique, radically different culture. In the popular view, it's a place still inhabited by various versions of William Faulkner's eccentric Snopes clan, with only the occasional noble Atticus Finch to balance things out. But as someone who has spent nearly 10 years writing about Mississippi and race and cultural identity in the South, I know that the state and its people have changed vastly since I left more than 20 years ago, vowing never to return.
If Faulkner landed in Oxford today, he wouldn't recognize the place or the people he'd encounter. It's a bustling town that no longer feels like a place of unfulfilled hope, as did his fictional version, called Jefferson. Groups of blacks, whites and Hispanics gather together in restaurants on Courthouse Square (which, of course, has its own Confederate memorial).
I recently went back to talk to students at Ole Miss and get a sense of how they view the coming election and how they think their region has changed. I learned that today's generation is willing to look beyond race and political party affiliation in ways that their parents couldn't, to move away from an identity that's shaped closely along racially demarcated lines and to achieve full social integration.
Taylor McGraw is a white freshman who grew up in Oxford. He contemplated going out of state to school but ended up at Ole Miss. He was determined to make a difference in college, and the university seemed to be a place where he could do that. "I know that race does affect the environment at Ole Miss in many ways," he says, "but race and diversity is what makes America unique."
Melissa Cole, a senior from Jackson, takes that one step further. What's happening at Ole Miss, she says, "is just the beginning of change in Mississippi, a new approach to race."
"James Meredith accomplished the racial integration of Ole Miss," agreed Nick Luckett, an African American student from the Delta town of Drew, "but our generation is tackling the next hardest task: social integration."
Ole Miss's efforts to achieve such integration no longer center merely on black and white but also include the population of international and, above all, Latino students. How could it not, given that Mississippi's Latino population has risen 60 percent since 1980, and the overall Latino population of the South has risen 462 percent since 1990?
Social integration also means moving beyond race and looking at issues of class as well. In my days at Ole Miss, race always seemed to be front and center, even when the issue may have been social class instead. But today, says McGraw, "race doesn't explain everything." Mississippi is a poor state, and even though the university was known as the school for the children of the wealthy Delta "planter class," its students have always represented a broad cross-section of the state's socioeconomic makeup. The tradition of the planter class has long since faded away, but economic background remains an issue. And yet, discussions of class in the South can obscure honest talk about race. "It's easier to talk about class, the money you have or don't have, than to talk about race and social segregation," Patrick Woodyard, a white senior from Hot Springs, Ark., told me.
On the other hand, Curtis Wilkie, a journalism professor at Ole Miss, believes that nowadays, "many of the divisions in Mississippi are more partisan than racial." His comment conjured an image from one of my visits to Mississippi last spring: A white man in a muddy pickup passed me somewhat aggressively along U.S. Highway 49. But he had an "Obama for President" sticker in his window, right below the gun rack.
Former Democratic governor Ray Mabus is working actively for Obama in Mississippi, which has probably made it easier for many loyal white Democrats to support a black candidate. Nevertheless, most registered voters are still Republican, and the state is without question conservative, far more likely to fall into McCain's column in November than into Obama's.
If you travel around the state, you'll still encounter some of the racial attitudes of the old South. True social integration has eluded Mississippians aged 50 and older, both black and white, even though they were shaped by the civil rights movement and the fight against segregation. But at the same time, the old racial divisions can no longer be automatically mined for political purposes. The University of Mississippi -- scene of that riot nearly a half-century ago -- is located in a congressional district where a heated special election took place in May. The Republican Party, along with outside groups, tried to defeat Democratic candidate Travis Childers by spending nearly $1 million on television commercials linking him to Obama. Childers won anyway.
In today's South, truth be told, the largest concerns are no longer racial or social but economic, as manufacturing jobs have replaced farming as a means of keeping residents in many Southern states. One of my favorite boyhood vistas, a vast cotton field near the Mississippi town of Canton, is now the site of a Nissan factory. In February 2007, Toyota announced that it would build a plant on a 1,700-acre site near Tupelo, Miss., the birthplace of Elvis Presley. Slowly, farmland is being converted to manufacturing, attracting people from far outside the region and even the country, further transforming the South's cultural and economic landscape.
As the saying goes, it's not your father's South anymore. Today, the region is more sophisticated and open-minded than most people outside it realize. Maybe the public and political strategists will both finally see that when John McCain and Barack Obama arrive on campus, and walk past those bullet-pocked walls.
Copyright 2008 The Washington Post