Ole Miss: Presidential Debate Host, Cultural Treasure

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Scott Simon reflects on Friday night's debate and the town where it was held: Oxford, Miss.


There's a circumstance worth noting about last night's encounter between John McCain and Barack Obama that reminds us, as much as the debate, that democracy hands us the chance to make history, even move dark history ahead into sunlight. Last night's debate was in Oxford, Mississippi, on the campus of the University of Mississippi.

In 1961, an Air Force veteran named James Meredith applied for admission to Ole Miss, as it's known. And when officials there realized the color of Mr. Meredith's skin, they refused to enroll. James Meredith is African-American.

The fall of 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Mr. Meredith's right to attend the school. President Kennedy sent U.S. marshals and the Mississippi National Guard to enforce the rule of the court. The old, leafy campus roiled with ugly protest, which can only be called riots. Two people, including a French reporter, were killed by gunfire coming from a crowd, which should be called a mob.

I'm glad that in these times it may be hard for us to imagine the courage of James Meredith. He walked across the campus, went to class, and put his head down to sleep in a place where he knew that there were people nearby who wanted to kill him. Over the years, Mr. Meredith has made a point of saying that most students accepted his presence. A few were even friendly. When he got to his first class, all the white students pointedly rose and walked out. James Meredith said later, I suddenly knew I was going to learn something that they didn't. I was already ahead of them.

For years, Mississippi was considered a state that was only barely a part of the country, not a part of the modern world. It was a society many Americans mocked as backwards and hateful. Today, the Oxford that played host to last night's debate and the community around Ole Miss is considered a cultural treasure, even edgy and hip. There's a statue of James Meredith on campus. He lives nearby, and by the way, he's a conservative Republican.

Tourists come to hear good local music, eat well, and maybe glimpse one of the famous writers who live in Oxford. Immigrants from Asia and Central America have also moved in. Ole Miss has been fully integrated for years, though I still do a double take when I see an African-American cheerleader at an Ole Miss football game giving the rebel yell.

But when you walk the streets, stores and schools of Lafayette County, you see a visible integration that's often missing on the upper west side of Manhattan, Georgetown, Lincoln Park, Santa Monica and a lot of other communities that may still mock Mississippi.

Last night, Mississippi played a role in electing the next president of the United States. It's a role that a lot of good people earned for the state. Their sacrifices and experience remind us of the history the rest of us can make in our lives, too.

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