This time next month the national media spotlight will focus on the fair city of my undergraduate matriculation, as Oxford and Ole Miss host the first Presidential Debate of the 2008 election. When the news broke regarding this several months ago, there was much rejoicing amid the kudzu and cornfields here in North Mississippi. However, the euphoria has evaporated and been replaced by a gathering sense of dread.
The reality is that the national news media will not paint Oxford and Ole Miss with a fair colored brush. They will arrive with preconceived notions and agendas, and will tailor their reportage and images of our place accordingly. They will first of all focus on something that happened here 46 years ago, and will intone with solemnity that the attitudes that erupted violently in the early fall of 1962 still simmer menacingly below the surface. They will be dead wrong.
What happened all those years ago was a horrible event that some have called the last pitched battle of the American Civil War. Hard to imagine today, but in 1962, schools across these re-United States (not just in the south as Yankee politicians would have you believe) were segregated. A brave young man, James Meredith (a USAF veteran, by the way), enrolled at Ole Miss that fall and the situation soon spiralled out of control. A minority of malcontents on campus began to riot. Federal Marshalls were detailed to ensure Meredith's safety, and soon an army of rednecks with rifles poured into Oxford from surrounding counties and states. Led, amazingly, by a retired U.S. Army general, the redneck regiment swarmed the campus of Ole Miss and besieged the small contingent of Federal Marshalls holed up in the university administration building, the Lyceum. Throughout a long night a steady rattle of gunfire peppered the Lyceum, the marks of which were still visible a dozen years later when I arrived on campus. A young and failing President Kennedy (he had bungled and lost the battle to overthrow Castro a year earlier) struggling with the secret revelation that the Soviet Union was placing nuclear tipped missiles on Cuba (Kennedy's failure to reverse the communist tide in Cuba that previous year led us very close to a nuclear exchange with the Russians over the missiles in Cuba), dispatched federal troops to Oxford to quell the insurrection.
Next month the media will make the case that not much has changed at Ole Miss since that fateful fall of 1962, and nothing will be further from the truth. There are still pockets of ignorance and racism in Mississippi to be sure, but in no greater prevalence than any where else in this country (Boston's racism is shameful, Ted). Some facts that the media won't bring up: A black student was popularly elected by the student body to the revered post as Colonel Rebel, in 1976. James Meredith is now a conservative and critical of white liberals for their use of blacks. James Meredith's son recently attained his PhD in Business at Ole Miss and was voted the Most Outstanding Business Graduate in his class.
Beauregard's Battle Flag (the rebel flag we all waved at Ole Miss Rebel football games in my day) is outlawed on campus. But, I will bet a punch in the jaw and give you five minutes to draw a crowd that there will be a redneck waving one on camera during the lead up to the debate. He'll be the only idiot waving a flag in a crowd of thousands, but will get all the air time.
I'll also predict how Obama and McCain supporters will be depicted on camera. There will be several cerebral draft-dodging professors (American academe is so liberal because those running our universities today stayed in school and became degreed educators in order to get draft deferments during the Vietnam War) on camera whose scholarly support for Obama will be contrasted by a redneck McCain supporter in a "Forget, Hell!" rebel flag-splashed t-shirt whose down-south diction will reinforce the reporter's agenda of portraying Mississippi as a bigoted backwater.
Then again, the reportage will be accurate--Mississippi is a terrible, horrid place. You wouldn't like it. Stay out.