Hardly an hour’s drive away from the village of Money, nestled in hilly woodlands and backed by a national forest, Oxford looked like a magnolia-scented citadel holding itself apart from the Delta’s social quagmires. Home of the University of Mississippi, the town mixed tranquility with student energy. I felt we’d stepped back in time from the raggedy world of campuses in the West. The kids we met were unfailingly polite, and so retro in the male students’ fashions of short-shorts or shirts tucked (!) into khakis. Old time Southern manners disarmed—I was “sir”ed more in one evening than in a whole year back home in Denver—all so sincere and natural that a Northerner used to brusqueness might just want to linger in the graciousness.
But the incident the campus is most famous for is not so gracious—just one more iconic case of Southern anti-hospitality. When African-American airman James Meredith won a Supreme Court appeal to attend the all-white university in the fall of 1962, he was met with local cruelty and state obstruction. The threat of mass hostility was so great that President Kennedy reluctantly sent in U.S. Army and Military Police battalions along with National Guard support for “battleground” conditions. On-campus riots against Meredith’s admission grew so violent that U.S. officers were shot in a burning car while armed locals killed a journalist and a young onlooker.
Visiting Ole Miss on a warm fall evening, George and I were told to “turn right at Meredith statue” as if it had been integrated, no pun intended, into mental models of the campus map, commemorating Meredith’s solitary steps into the administration building. Strolling, George and I did spot African-American athletes and cheerleaders around the stadium and random black faces in the central campus. Current black enrollment was nearly 17 % of the student body, but the overall impression was of a white fantasia, a bleached Mississippi spit-shined until it reflected back exactly what white Mississippi would like to be.
The 50th anniversary of Meredith’s admission was fully commemorated with educational programs, but the 79 year-old alumnus himself did not attend, finding nothing to celebrate and likening it to Germans celebrating the destruction of Berlin. In fact, Meredith called for the destruction of the 2006 statue erected in his honor, calling it “hideous.”
A month after the 2012 commemoration, on the night President Obama won re-election, a group of Ole Miss students rampaged on campus, breaking today’s apparent racial harmony when about 40 attendees at a pro-GOP rally felt blindsided by Romney’s loss. Animated by Twitter-fed fictions about counter-riots, fires, and gunshots, the group burned Obama signs, chanting “The South Will Rise Again” while the crowd grew to four hundred, including campus parents.
Though the rally remained a minor campus incident gone South, it made national news and stirred controversy in Oxford. Given the university’s tarnished image, Dr. Don Cole, assistant chancellor for multi-cultural affairs, told George and me that any racial incident on campus would be magnified. “We dug ourselves into a hole with our past and now we’ve got to dig out, above and beyond mere obligation.”
An African American and Mississippi native, Don has a startling story of his own, having dug himself out of a hole he most emphatically did not dig. He entered Ole Miss as a freshman only six years after Meredith’s admission crisis, experiencing the same raw racism. White students waved rebel flags in his presence, threw garbage at him, and shoved him off sidewalks. Eventually earning his PhD in mathematics, Don joined the faculty and later was tasked with raising racial awareness as part of student orientation. He added the Romney Rally Incident to the orientation program, insisting that students face misguided attitudes directly. He saw much of the misconduct growing out of the students’ range of backgrounds in social growth. Don saw racial awareness as a seamless part of the university’s educational mission, lamenting so much rigorous training in math and sciences but so little in social education.
George asked if there was any negative pushback from faculty.
“No, I have support from higher up,” Don said, adding a curiously measured phrase: “I’m not overly disappointed with the faculty on racial issues. Good guys in the North correct themselves quicker. It’s slower for folks to step up here, so bad guys get away with more.”
Though he saw the South’s social flaws so clearly, Don saw himself as “a black Southerner first,” before any other identity, whether American or Mississipian. “I still love the South,” he said, easing back in his chair with a wistful smile. “I still have hope for it. I want it to be the region that will liberate itself from the bondage of race.”
As I learned of Don’s work raising awareness and encouraging critical thinking about Mississippi’s past struggles and present progress, I felt satisfied that we’d ended our Mississippi journey in Oxford. We had travelled through what gets celebrated in the region’s history, what’s ignored, and what’s deliberately left out. We’d explored Vicksburg’s myths about its past, from getting stuck in that VFW pageant at the restored Civil War warship, through the military park historians’ still coping with warring views of history, and along the creaky planks of the Old Courthouse Museum. Greenwood seemed to be just waking from a prolonged nightmare, still stuck in racial divides, slowly revitalizing as it emerges from its long era of enforced inequality. Here in Oxford, our endless Southern conversation returned to how history is or is not commemorated, and how the collective memory grows dim unless we all keep on talking.
Plus, What Billy Joe McAllister Really Did Throw Off the Tallahatchie Bridge
The Mississippi countryside north of Vicksburg looked exactly like it was supposed to—“a sleeping beauty,” I told George.
“I hope she doesn’t wake up,” he said, grumpy and travel weary as we crossed north into the Delta. Considering that George vowed he would “never set foot in Mississippi” before this trip, I was lucky to have him along. George’s father “mysteriously estranged” himself from his early roots in the state, and the way his son had talked, traveling to Mississippi would be as crazy as booking a journey to Hell.
Yet here we were, as deep as we could get into the state famous for its poverty and Jim Crow violence, following the Yazoo River along state route 3. As the late October afternoon grew darker, part of me freaked over what would happen if this sleeping beauty did wake up again, psychotic as she was in the 60s, when white-supremacist terrorism bloomed like cotton fields. But most fields were fallow now as the route went between quiet expanses of still-green pasture and tunnel-like tree groves, branches arching over the highway. Not a soul stirred around the modest farmhouses. Even the few dinky towns hid themselves, miles off the main road, down even quieter roads.
As we hopscotched country routes toward Greenwood, the heart of the old Delta economy (once the World’s Largest Inland Long Staple Cotton Market, don’t ya know?), where the Tallahatchie River emptied into the Yazoo. George, still grumpy, asked, “Why on earth we were going to Greenwood?”
“To discover once and for all why Billy Joe McAlister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge,” I joked feebly, but it worked. George, ever the chorister, started singing the great old Bobby Gentry song about a mysterious motive that drove Billy Joe to suicide. Soon, I would solve the mystery: Billy Joe McAllister jumped off that damn bridge because Greenwood drove him nuts, suspended too long between hope and despair.
I had lots of reasons to visit the town, which was an epicenter of civil rights history. The powerful segregationist White Citizens Council was formed in Greenwood in 1954. As with Selma, when local blacks were attacked for registering to vote in the early 60s, prominent figures such as James Meredith and Stokely Carmichael came to town to highlight the struggle, birthing the Greenwood Movement, and celebrities such as Dick Gregory and Harry Belafonte raised funds from afar. The very idea of Black Power was launched in a small Greenwood park.
But as night fell and we entered Greenwood, I wondered how solid my reasons were. Today it was probably another sleepy, dusty Delta town, maybe even a ghost of one. Our first impression was depressing. The main drag led through a block after block of empty, soaped-over storefronts–a dead zone. I had a horrible feeling that after the Movement’s successful store boycotts to gain voting rights, Greenwood had devolved into a place where no one shopped at all.
George was uneasy about hanging out in the town center after dark, so we walked across the Yazoo River and down Grand Boulevard. Though renowned for the grandeur of older and newer homes, some occupying entire blocks, used as a movie set in “The Help,” and now lavishly decorated for Halloween, Grand Boulevard was as lifeless as downtown. Crossing the river again, we did find a BBQ joint open near the courthouse. When we asked what else was available downtown, a bewildered young waitress stared as us blankly.
We got the message, but before we fled the abandoned streets, I wanted to ponder the inevitable Confederate statue at the courthouse. In 1962, when student Sam Block attempted to help register black voters here, the Citizens Council called to kindly inform him to stop or he would “never leave Greenwood alive.” This is before he was “beaten, shot at driven from SNCC headquarters by goons with chains and shotguns, and firebombed.” George told me the hell with the statue, we had to get going.