Watch CBSN Live

UMiss Mulls Racial Past Before Presidential Debates

This story was written by Tim Summers, Daily Mississippian

The upcoming presidential debate at the University of Mississippi will bring into consideration a comparison of racial relations in the university's past as the community prepares for the possibility of welcoming the nation's first black presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama.

"I do not know of another university that has been more conscientious to make (black) students feel more a part of the community," said David Sansing, author of "The University of Mississippi: A Sesquicentennial History."

"I do not think that there is another university in the country that has experienced such a dramatic and sweeping change in the racial atmosphere on campus."

When Sansing wrote the book, he was responding to the changes that have occurred at the University since the turbulent Civil Rights Era.

Sansing, past history professor at the university, arrived at Ole Miss in 1970, eight years after the integration of the university began with the admission of James Meredith.

"In the 1960s, there was a small, gradual increase in the number of black students," Sansing said. "It became obvious that those black students wanted the best education available to them. They did not come as activists but as students."

Although Meredith led the way for the Civil Rights Movement by battling countless acts of discrimination at the university for his right to an education, the racial conflicts at Ole Miss were far from over.

"(The year of) 1970 was the first time that you could truly sense and feel that there was a real change happening," Sansing said. "This does not mean we did not have flare-ups."

Sansing said the biggest racially charged event to occur at the university since the integration of Meredith occurred when the university's first black cheerleader John Hawkins was elected in the fall of 1982.

According to "Sesquicentennial History," it was still a tradition for the cheerleaders to run out onto the field before every football game waving Confederate flags.

Hawkins refused, and as Sansing cites in the book, the Clarion-Ledger reported, "As traditionalists at Ole Miss boiled over the refusal of a black cheerleader to carry the Rebel flag, the protestors (sat on) strategically laid blankets."

The campus became polarized with each side of the debate passionate in their support.

The protests coincided with the planning of the 20th anniversary of Meredith's admittance to the university.

During his speech at the observance September 30, Meredith encouraged the university to remove the Confederate flag, according to "Sesquicentennial History."

Hawkins' election represented a glimmer of hope that the university was prepared to move past its tumultuous racial history.

He was elected by securing 1,241 votes from a student body that had only 715 black students.

It seemed the student body was ready to move on from the university's dark past.

On April 20, 1983, former Chancellor Porter L. Fortune, Jr. announced that "the University of Mississippi was officially and formally disassociating itself from the Confederate flag and that no unit or organization officially associated with the university, including cheerleaders, would display the flag." The activities between fall 1982 and the April press conference, which included a Klan rally in Oxford and a flag-waving protest of 1,500 white students in front of the Phi Beta Sigma house to which Hawkins belonged, forced the Chancellor to make a decision for which he received death threats, criticism and in some cases was "reviled by some of his long-standing friends," according to the Sesquicentennial History.

Th "death" of the "tradition" that was the Confederate flag compels one to compare the way things were then to the current state of the university.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.