On Day Of Debate, Ole Miss Examines Past

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More than 45 years after James Meredith sparked segregationist riots when he became the first black student at the University of Mississippi, the school is hosting a presidential debate with the first black nominee from a major political party. The school's leadership and students talk about how Ole Miss hopes to shake off that image.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

The Bush administration's bailout plan and alternatives to it will almost certainly be debated tonight at the University of Mississippi at Oxford. It's hosting the first presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. The last time Ole Miss had this much national attention was more than 45 years ago when federal troops escorted the first black student onto campus in the middle of a white segregationist riot. As NPR's Audie Cornish reports, the school hopes that tonight's debate will help redefine its image.

AUDIE CORNISH: When a federal court order forced the University of Mississippi to admit James Meredith, Meredith's first day on the all-white Oxford campus ended in a hail of gas canisters, bullets, two dead and hundreds injured.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIOT)

CORNISH: The images of white rioters shouting insults to Meredith and fighting off the National Guard still haunt Curtis Wilkie.

CURTIS WILKIE: I was just a student and - out there the night the marshals first fired the tear gas, with plenty of provocation, and I was dumb enough to stay out as a spectator for several hours while the riot carried on through the night.

CORNISH: Then a journalism student, Wilkie's now a professor in the same department. After graduation, he says he never wanted to come back.

WILKIE: A lot of students left the school. A lot of prospective students never wanted to come here. We had the image of being of this outpost of the segregationists.

CORNISH: But he did come back. And so did Don Cole, a black alum expelled from Ole Miss back in 1967 for his civil rights activities. Today, Cole is the assistant provost for diversity, and he says black students in particular sometimes take convincing.

DONALD COLE: They have to justify coming here. They have to sometimes justify to their parents and it's difficult, if you will, to change some memories, especially when they've sunk in so deep, hit so hard, been so personal.

CORNISH: The university is investing $5 million in the campus facilities, security and telecommunications upgrades to host the first presidential debate and they hope this is their chance to update the nation's image of Ole Miss while they're at it.

ROBERT KHAYAT: I found in this job that symbols are much more emotional than substances.

CORNISH: Robert Khayat is the University's chancellor.

KHAYAT: I think it'd be a wonderful statement to the nation that here you are at Ole Miss where 30,000 troops and the U.S. marshals to gain entrance to the university for one nice, quiet, relatively small African-American man, to have an African-American person on the stage at Ole Miss.

CORNISH: For the last 15 years Khayat, an alum from 1961, hasn't been afraid to go after some symbols. Under his watch, the school has limited Confederate flag waving at sporting events. They founded an institute for racial reconciliation and put up a bronze statue of James Meredith just a hundred yards away from a white marble statue of a Confederate soldier. Still, some Ole Miss symbols remain as strong as ever. Such as the school mascot, a Confederate figure known as Colonel Reb. And that's OK, says Desiree Edwards(ph), a senior linguistics major and member of the Black Student Union.

DESIREE EDWARDS: I mean, every, you know, place has its problems. It's not like racism is dead anywhere. You know, we mostly don't wake up in the morning and go "Oh God! I just hate Colonel Reb." It's more like, no, it's an issue but we're working it out slowly. We're a family and we got to work these issues out, you know, one at a time.

CORNISH: Joseph Cole(ph) is a 19-year-old white Mississippian, and says Barack Obama's nomination shows the nations has moved forward and it's time for the progress at Ole Miss to be acknowledged as well.

JOSEPH COLE: This is not 1962. This is 2008. You know there's- our campus is full of every type of person from every type of different country you can imagine. So the progress has been made and this will help it so much.

CORNISH: But really, after the television hosts pronounce Oxford as the home of the first debate, the night will be about Senators John McCain and Barack Obama going head to head on foreign policy and of course the economy. Those are the issues that will take center stage and that too is just fine with folks at Ole Miss. Audie Cornish, NPR News.

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