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Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy spoke to a national TV audience about the integration of Ole Miss.
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PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: Mister James Meredith is now in residence on the campus of the University of Mississippi. This has been accomplished thus far without the use of National Guard or other troops.
CORNISH: But those troops were called in when violence broke out on the campus at Oxford. Two people were killed and hundreds were injured in the standoff between state segragationists and the federal government.
Now, as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, students at Ole Miss are studying that turbulent history and exploring the role of race on today's campus.
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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Visit the University of Mississippi campus on a fall afternoon and you can hear the Pride of the South Band rehearsing for the weekend football game.
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ELLIOTT: Unlike 50 years ago, when federal marshals had to escort James Meredith to his mostly empty classes, today, black and white students sit together around a table at the Honors College.
MARVIN KING: All right, excuse us. Excuse us.
CURTIS WILKIE: Let's get moving, guys.
ELLIOTT: The course is called Opening the Closed Society, and is an in-depth look at the integration of Ole Miss.
WILKIE: We're kind of at the point where Meredith is coming to the campus and turmoil is about to start.
ELLIOTT: Journalist Curtis Wilkie, who is white, was a senior at Ole Miss during the riot. He teaches the course with a younger black political science professor, Marvin King. King says teaching around this pivotal moment shows students the broader implications of the battle here.
KING: Mississippi was finally going to integrate. And if Mississippi was going to integrate, that was kind of - it wasn't the last test, but it was probably most severe test.
ELLIOTT: Curtis Wilkie tells the students that 50 years ago, no one knew what would come of the standoff.
WILKIE: I thought, as a student, that there was a possibility that the university would be closed. There was even thought that Mississippi might try to secede from the union again. That is how intense the situation was.
ELLIOTT: Learning about the intense resistance to desegregation before they were born sparks conversations about what the students have experienced in their own lives. Zack Huffman now looks differently at racial practices from his high school.
ZACK HUFFMAN: I never really thought about this until right now, this conversation. But guys, I remember having a separate white and black homecoming queen.
ELLIOTT: Kaitlyn Barton went to high school just outside Jackson, the state capital.
KAITLYN BARTON: Still, like, to this day, we have elections for the white student body president and a black student president, and that's 2012.
ELLIOTT: After class, teacher Curtis Wilkie says that kind of dialogue is what learning about the past can foster.
WILKIE: If we're not willing to confront race and deal with it, especially in a place like Mississippi, we've got problems. And so, this is an opportunity in obviously an integrated class to deal with some issues that, you know, may be a little uncomfortable. But I think most of the students are willing to thrash it out.
ELLIOTT: Indeed, as the class breaks up, Claire Douglas of Nashville asks why no one talks much about the segregated Greek system on the Ole Miss campus. Neil McMillan is a member of an all-white fraternity, and finds it troubling.
NEIL MCMILLAN: My fraternity, the Kappa Alpha Order, is the one most closely associated with the Old South. And that is something that - I think it bothers a lot of us. I think it makes us reflect on what we - how we bear ourselves, how we show that we that we aren't defined by the past.
ELLIOTT: Students are confronted with symbols of the Old South daily, says Hardy DeLaughter of Biloxi. School officials have tried to curtail the use of Confederate battle flags at sporting events, and replaced the controversial mascot Colonel Reb. But DeLaughter says there's pushback.
HARDY DELAUGHTER: People say, oh yeah, that's a symbol of the old way, of our roots, that's - you know, we don't want to get rid of that. And it's been unfortunate to see that we've been so resistant to the change. That's almost an Ole Miss tradition - we resist change.
ELLIOTT: Even the university's nickname - Ole Miss - harkens back to different times and a connotation Daniel Roberts says most students were unaware of.
DANIEL ROBERTS: I just assumed it was something along the lines of Old Mississippi, or something like that and just the Southern dialect threw it off. But come to find out that it's more of something that's associated with, I guess, the colonial era of Mississippi.
CLAIRE DOUGLAS: When we talked about it in class, two weeks ago, that was the first time I ever heard what Ole Miss meant. And I was like, I never knew (unintelligible) explain...
ROBERTS: Well, apparently allegedly it came from a plantation owner's - his wife, the plantation wife, and how she - that's how the slaves referred to her, as Ole Miss.
ELLIOTT: Roberts, who is black, and Claire Douglas, who is white, both say that's not what Ole Miss means to them today. They are proud of strides made on campus. The student body president is a young black woman. And African-American enrollment is at a record high 16 percent of the student population.
Still, Kaitlyn Barton says students are not as comfortable with each other as you might expect 50 years after the wall of segregation came down. Just take a look at the student union, she says.
BARTON: And there's typically one section that's African-American and one section that's white. And it's not that anyone tells us to sit there; it's just the way that it happens. It's just the way we kind of separate ourselves out.
ELLIOTT: Junior Hope Owens-Wilson says it can be daunting for black students to find their place here.
HOPE OWENS-WILSON: Still, there's kind of an indescribable atmosphere on campus that's alienating to students of color, which is difficult to explain. And it's often hard to talk about because it is a kind of unpleasant thing to mention, especially during the 50th anniversary. But it's definitely something that, as we progress in the university, you need to be aware of.
ELLIOTT: As for James Meredith's legacy of integration?
OWENS-WILSON: I don't think it's done. We still have a ways to go. So definitely...
OWENS-WILSON: ...I think there's more to be done.
ELLIOTT: But Wilson says courses like Opening the Closed Society can keep the focus on making the University of Mississippi a more open campus.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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