I spent three fascinating, moving days in Oxford, Mississippi at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in August — the site of the first scheduled presidential debate. I was honored with an invitation to speak to the remarkable Honors College of Ole Miss by its dean Douglass Sullivan-Gonzales. Oxford was the home of William Faulkner, and it is one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited — marked by a loveliness of people as well as place. Even then, in mid-August, the Secret Service and other affiliated debate authorities had begun to tear up and rearrange that beautiful campus — building elaborate security perimeters and state of the art communications Gertrude Castellow Ford Center for the Performing Artsfacilities for thousands of journalists. The august building in which I was to speak, the appointed site of the debate, had already been locked down and quarantined. I couldn’t help but think of all these practicalities — at public expense — as I heard John McCain’s announcement of his wish to postpone the debate yesterday. I imagine many hearts sank in Oxford.

And it’s been a wild ride for them all along. The first debate was originally planned to focus on issues of domestic policy and the economy. The Ole Miss faculty and administration created an interdisciplinary semester curriculum around these issues. They lined up an astonishing array of visiting lectures and extracurricular seminars. Then just as school began, the McCain and Obama campaigns agreed to shift the Ole Miss debate focus to foreign policy. Right now it looks like the original plan was more prescient. The university took the change in stride, moving forward with its own well-laid plans, though with some understandable frustration. I joked — but not all in jest — that by November the students at Ole Miss will be the best-informed, most well-rounded thinkers in the nation.

James Meredith and Ole MissBut there are deeper issues at play around this debate, in particular, a convergence of more fundamental national dynamics that could easily be missed in all the politicking around this ultra-politicized event. In 1962, the nation’s eyes focused on Oxford and Ole Miss, as race riots accompanied the integration of the university by a determined African-American student named James Meredith. In just a few days there, I learned that for people who live in and love Oxford even in 2008, history’s subdivisions and ephiphanies still fall on either side of this living memory: time is divided into “before Meredith” and “after Meredith.”

I remember especially one woman who stood with me at the monument to James Meredith at the center of the campus — a wonderful dean at the honors college from an old Oxford family. Her grandparents were close friends of William Faulkner and his wife, icons of a paradoxical past — at once immensely gracious and essentially cruel. She spoke of how after the riots hearts and minds changed individually and ultimately collectively. She suggested, softly, that Oxford has become something of a model for how people and communities can evolve. This is not a story so often told. She said, “We had to realize that we had been wrong — and wrong about a way of life we loved.” I was humbled to be in her presence. I have not spent much time in the Deep South in my life, though I grew up in Oklahoma, where issues of race and bigotry have not often enough met with profound public reflection. In Oxford, I saw people wrestling carefully, searchingly, self-critically, and gracefully with the unresolved American encounter with race. I was impressed.

And so hosting this historic 2008 civil debate between a white candidate for president and an African-American candidate for president means more to the people of Oxford than most of us can imagine. The current chancellor of the university was himself a student “during Meredith.” History is present at Ole Miss, and it is history that we have scarcely found ways in our common life to name and discuss even in the midst of Barack Obama’s historic candidacy. I for one will be watching the people of Oxford tomorrow, not just the candidates. I hope very much that the debate happens.


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Reflections

I have been a committed supporter of Speaking of Faith since the program's earliest days. Krista Tippett's openness and curiosity with her guestsand her spirituality have provided for me a new model for personal growth in individual and collective ways. I live in Mississippi, graduated from the University of Mississippi, and now have daughters there pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees. The debate provided an opportunity for great exosure for the university and the town; however, there was very little emotion or thought conveyed which pointed to a true understanding of the depth of the changes that have come about here. Krista Tippett, you get it!Thank you for conveying so beautifully to the rest of the world your experience in and of Mississippi. Perhaps some day we might earn the priviledge of replacing old stereotypes with newer more appropriate ones...keeping always in mind the lessons learned.

While I have not been to Oxford, I have been to many cities that have inhuman histories.
I sincerely hope that an illusion is not coming forth that America is much improved in the lessening of rascism and bigotry. A couple years ago the head of the national Republican party spoke to an NAACP national convention in Milwaukee and admitted the party used rascism to gain power. He then asked the crowd to get over that and join with the Republicans. Rascists and bigots are more organized than ever in America. Let us also keep in mind the "southern strategy" that was launched following the signing of the civil rights act. That strategy still damages America to this day.
Any town can put on a shallow but pretty face. The best similarity I can express is when a town doesn't want to be seen as having a homeless problem so they have the police hassle and push the homeless further and further into the shadows until the town appears like it doesn't have a homeless issue. The bigots and rascists might not be in Oxford but I would venture a guess that they are plentiful in the white suburbs surrounding Oxford.
Even among good and decent people, cognitive dissonance will prevent them from seeing tragic negatives in the community and country they dearly love.

If you had not indiacted at the beginning of your comment that you've never been to Oxford, it would still be very clear to me. As a recent alum of Ole Miss and a resident of Mississippi for the bulk of my life, I can assure you that Ms. Tippett's impression of Oxford was very true to the reality of the situation there. There is no "shallow but pretty face." I am not trying to insist that racism is completely gone from the area, but I would like to point out that it isn't completely gone from anywhere. I currently reside in Utah, but have also lived in Florida, New York, and Massachusetts. In each place I have lived, I have encountered just as much, and in some cases more, small-minded bigotry as I did growing up and going to school in Mississippi. So, please, don't stereotype the South. The truth of the matter is that racists are everywhere.

Also, I disagree that racists and bigots are more organized than ever. My generation that has grown up in the post-civil rights era doesn't have the same way of thinking about race as our parents do. We have always gone to integrated schools. We've never experienced Race Riots, thank goodness. Barack Obama has a fighting chance in this election, I think, largely due to the fact that more and more voters are from my generation that simply doesn't take race into account like our parents and grandparents did. As time goes on and people with old fashioned ideas about race are no longer running the show, I think that racists and bigots will also become less and less prevalent in our society.


Sarah,
Google cognitive dissonance.

I in no way stereotyped the south or Oxford. If you reread my comments I mentioned that I had been to many cities. By that I meant all over America. I spent years as a construction manager and spent significant time in cities from coast to coast and north to south. I saw it in some of the workers on the jobsites and they were workers of all ages including some that are maybe in your enlightened generation. I also saw it in some businesses I would visit. Seldom do you see it out front and in the open.

When I was young I thought my generation would end racism and wars of control. Yet over the years as I interacted with more and more people of my generation I found that would not be the case.

As soon as times get tougher you will see racism come back in full bloom. Minorities being scapegoated for people losing jobs will increase.

Spending a relatively small amount of time in any city is not long enough to see beyond the face and certainly not enough to pronounce racism no longer existing there. That was my point.

Bottom line is we should never think that racism by any race is diminished to the point of no longer worthy of our acknowlegement or attention. Not in Oxford, Chicago, L.A. or New York.

Hi Corky, I just wanted to make a small comment on what you've said here. I'm not a student at Ole Miss nor have I spent a substantial amount of time in Oxford, but I have spent enough time there to refute your comments about the suburbs of Oxford. Oxford's not a major city, it's a college town. The area is pretty quiet in the summer when the students are out of town. The people who do call Oxford home for the most part live in the city proper, and there's lots of gorgeous homes and neighborhoods that border the town square. The University of Mississippi is a wealthy campus that is the most "upper class" of Mississippi's public universities, and that upper class primacy is reflected in the make up of the city itself. This would lead me to argue that Krista is right in what she saw--that the city is not putting on a shallow and pretty face--but instead filled with people and students who are at least trying to bridge the racial divide. You won't find racists in the suburbs because there really are no suburbs in that town.

That said, things aren't all rosy in Oxford. You may or may not have heard of the controversy last year that arose when some black fraternity students came to a party at a traditionally white fraternity house (http://www.thedmonline.com/2.2.... I was on campus in the aftermath of that event, visiting some of my best friends. Those friends of mine who attend Ole Miss will tell you that there IS racism there, and it's felt strongly. The student body is largely segregated. Strides have been made and things are better than they were, but it does nobody any good to ignore issues that still persist. This completely rosy, racism is solely in the past, picture of race relations at Ole Miss is just as dangerous as the views that claim every student at the University is racist.

You may call me biased, but if you were to ask me what university is truly progressive when it comes to dealing with race relations, I'd have to point to my own: the University of Southern Mississippi. Our campus is roughly 30% black and 65% white, along with a few other minorities. This comes closer to Mississippi's actual racial diversity. More important than enrollment statistics, though, is campus involvement. I'm a member of our Student Government Association, one of the most active and certainly the most influential student organization on campus. This group is very diverse from the sub committees to the executive officers, and there is no racial tension. All of the major student organizations on campus (minus the Afro-American Student Organization, which is specifically for black students) are racially varied. We recently had elections for our homecoming court and Mr. and Mrs. USM. They were a diverse group that included not only white and black students, but a middle eastern student as well. The winner of Mr. USM this year is biracial. I served on our elections commission this year, and we counted all ballots by hand (we're working on an electronic system ;) ). I know from looking at the actual ballots that no students voted across racial lines, and that makes me really proud to be a Southern Miss student. Southern is just a really progressive University... we just inaugurated our first female president of the university, we're committed to going green and have a carbon neutral plan, and we have an open and inviting student body that includes students of all races (and countries--66 different nations are represented by students on campus! :) ), religons, sexual orientations, etc. USM often gets overlooked because we don't have the money or the SEC standing or whatever, but it is a great and very progressive university in the south. I'm very proud of it.

I think Sarah is right when she says that as our generation grows up, and as we raise the next generation, racism will continue to disappear. It's becoming less and less of an issue, and my hope is that this will continue. There is always the danger though that we'll move on from our historical hatred of blacks and pass that awful legacy onto another group, such as Hispanic people. I find it is often the case that racism isn't erradicated but transferred from group to group while we claim progress because we don't hate the group we've hated before. You've seen this in history--Irish Americans used to be hated, but that's no longer an issue. Instead there are other groups we target. I think thise is a serious problem. Instead of focusing on racial tolerance between black and white or any other group, we should be thinking about tolerance across the board, tolerance for all those we come in contact with.

I didn't mean for this to be so long, but it looks like I've gone on a little rant of my own. :) Thanks for the program, everyone. I always enjoy listening. :)

Hello Heather,
I guess I did not make it clear enough that I considered Oxford as an Anytown USA.The original story mentioned being there a few days and the changes noticed. Initial impressions are not always reality. That in a nutshell is my point.
The incident you mentioned at the university could be at any university and that goes to my point. Racism is not gone. Slightly diminished maybe. In the shadows yes but far from gone and certainly not something from other generations only.
It did not matter what town the story was about. My comments would have generated comments from people in any town defending it as not racist or no longer racist.
Your comments about tolerance across the board are read with much appreciation and hope. Hopefully they are contagious.

Thanks for the clarification, and sorry for my own misunderstanding. I agree that racism is not gone... living in the south I know that, and like you said I am sure it is much the same everywhere. It's not only generational, either, but I'm hoping increased tolerance will become a mark of each succeeding generation, and I don't think that's too much too expect or hope for... but maybe then that's just the optimism of dewy eyed youth. ;)

I was surprised that there wasn't more mentioned in the media about Obama coming to debate McCain at a university and in a state that saw so much pain during desegregation. Today things have changed in Mississippi, still there isn't a decision made that doesn't have race factored into it one way or another.