The late Nobel laureate and Mississippi novelist William Faulkner famously wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." But as the site of the first presidential debate, Faulkner's hometown of Oxford shows it has come far from its past.
Friday night's debate will take place at the University of Mississippi in Oxford — known colloquially as Ole Miss — between Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL).
So much has changed since the turbulent integration of the college by African-American student James Meredith in 1962. Many people still remember the 30,000 federal troops sent in to control hostile mobs, and the two men who died and hundreds more who were injured. But it's a distant memory.
Today, 19 percent of the students are minority. No longer is the Confederate flag flown at football games, or the Colonel Reb mascot — a caricature of a Civil War officer — leading cheers at games.
And now with the appearance of McCain and Obama, the first black major-party nominee appearing for a political showdown, the campus is poised for a historic moment.
A Post-Racial Era
"For one time, the stars have aligned in our favor," says David Sansing, a professor emeritus of history at Ole Miss. "We have made so much progress since the Meredith crisis."
Sansing, who wrote a sesquicentennial history of the college, speaks of what he calls the contemporary "post-racial" era at Ole Miss, in which broad racial issues have been resolved.
"Just as Barack Obama is the first post-racial candidate for president, this is a post-racial university," Sansing says. "Race is not a fundamental issue here anymore. Scholarship, excellence, achievement — these are the things students focus on now," Sansing says.
Charles K. Ross, director of the university's African-American Studies Program, says, "This debate is a testament to the struggle the university has waged. Real progress has occurred, and this is a real opportunity for people to take a look at us as an institution, for outsiders to take a look at us, evaluate us, hold our feet to the fire."
"Sure," he adds, "there are things we still need to work on around issues of race."
Dylan's Oxford Town
There is an aura about Oxford. Besides Faulkner, other Southern literary luminaries — John Grisham and Willie Morris, among them — have called it home. Bob Dylan wrote a song about the campus integration:
He went down to Oxford Town
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his face was brown
Better get away from Oxford Town
Now people are flocking to the bucolic county seat less than two hours south of Memphis. Oxford perennially shows up on magazine lists of the best places to retire.
So what does the debate at the university mean to the town? "It means," says Mayor Richard Howorth, laughing, "that there's been a whole lot of meetings."
Then he gets serious. "No. It means a lot of things," says the once and future bookseller who's nearing the end of his two-term mayoral stint. "It's an affirmation to the university and the community and the state that we've taken a place in the center of the American political arena — with respectable qualifications. Instead of having to be visited by the national and international media because there is a race riot here."
The city of Oxford has blossomed in recent years, Howorth says. Population is about 20,000. Some 21 percent of the people are African-American, the mayor says, and the percentage for Lafayette County, of which the town is a part, is closer to 25 percent.
Curtis Wilkie, a former Boston Globe reporter who teaches journalism at Ole Miss, says that all university campuses lust after high profile events such as presidential debates.
"You want it for the excitement it provides to your students," he says, "to enlarge their education. But this is especially important to Ole Miss — and this is where we differ from other campuses — because it means so much to us symbolically."
The debate gives the Ole Miss community "the opportunity to show the world that we are no longer what we were when I was a student here in the 1960s," Wilkie says. "All of this involves race."
When the decision was made by the Commission on Presidential Debates in November 2007 to stage the first of three face-offs at the university's Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts, no one knew that Obama would be the nominee, and "that enhances the symbolism," Wilkie says. He adds that Obama's candidacy has brought many of the students into the political process.
The McCains Of Mississippi
McCain also has supporters on campus. And the Arizona senator has some deep Mississippi roots.
"McCain's ancestors are from 50 miles down the road from here," Wilkie says. Sure enough, McCain's great-great grandfather, William Alexander McCain, owned a plantation — and slaves — in Carroll County. According to Salon, he was a member of the Mississippi cavalry and died in the Civil War.
These days, there is a Civil War monument on the Ole Miss campus — and a civil rights monument as well.
But not everyone believes that the past is dead.
"Things have changed, but not enough," says Dean Faulkner Wells, William Faulkner's niece. She and her husband, Larry — both writers — have lived in Oxford for years.
Every morning, she says, the couple puts an "Obama for President" sign in their front yard. "And Larry brings it in every night so it won't get trashed."