Returning To Ole Miss

James Meredith (center with briefcase), civil rights activist, is escorted to the University of Mississippi, 1962/10/2.
Weekly commentary by CBS Evening News chief Washington correspondent and Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer.
I went back to Oxford, Mississippi Friday to cover the presidential debate.

It was the first time I had been back on that campus since 1962, when I was sent there as a young reporter to cover what would be my first big story: the enrollment of James Meredith, the first African American to attend the University.

Of all the stories I've covered (including Vietnam), the most terrifying experience I ever had was that night that I spent on the campus of Ole Miss when a riot broke out. Hundreds were injured and two people died as protestors tried to stop a black man from attending a tax-supported state school.

Meredith remained under armed guard until he graduated, but his enrollment marked a turning point in the civil rights movement.

Yet, when I came back to the campus Friday, all that seemed long ago and far away.

Where the state's governor had once defied federal law and snipers had fired into crowds of journalists and mobs had set fires, black and white students were working together to welcome reporters and official visitors.

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour called it a fine day. Ole Miss was hosting a presidential debate that included the first African American to capture a major party presidential nomination. Everyone had joined hands to insure that it went off perfectly, and it did.

We still have a long way to go in this country to insure that every American is treated fairly, but as I walked across the Ole Miss campus Friday, it helped me understand that in less than my lifetime, we have also come a very long way.

It was a fine debate but it was so much more. It was a significant moment in American history.