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Summit on Race at Ole Miss
In Oxford, Mississippi once again, racial stereotypes hurtled through the October air, and people were talking about James Meredith, the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962. He arrived at Ole Miss only after President Kennedy ordered Federal Marshals to escort him to campus. Angry segregationist whites rioted and two people were killed.
This time, instead of tear gas, a note of cautious optimism hung in the air. Mississippis first Statewide Student Summit on Race opened at Ole Miss on the October 1 anniversary of Merediths matriculation.
Susan Glisson, Assistant Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, recently attended a meeting of black graduate students where they were talking about having a social event. One of their concerns was the difficulty in finding a venue because they feared that wherever they went they would be the only black people in a place normally frequented by whites. "I have every confidence that if I was at a similar meeting of white students, that issue would not be of concern. For a host of other reasonseducation, housing, wages, and prisonswe could talk about how race affects every day life, but I think that this is the most poignant example. When you cant just consider going out to have a good time, then race matters."
To most of the 200 Summit participants, race still matters. The Student Summit on Race was a historic event. The interracial group of students, working together on the issue of race, attract ed national attention for its novelty. Just 30 years ago Mississippians were being beaten for having interracial friendships. "The fact that this was student organized shows that students of Mississippi are concerned about racial reconciliation, and that gives me hope," noted Ole Miss biology senior Cassie Williford. "This could lead to students in other states taking similar steps."
The Summit came out of a partnership of students from 12 Mississippi colleges and universities. "Unlike student gatherings of the past, such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), this idea began without the prompting of a crisis," explained Glisson. The students hoped to gain an understanding of past successes and tragedies while looking toward the future and their involvement in it. They designated the theme of the weekend, "Many Faces, Many Voices: One Solution." Their solution? Committed people working together to address problems caused by racism.
Leading figures from the civil rights struggles of the l960s came to provide a larger historical context for the Summit. Bob Zellner was one such civil rights veteran. As the son of a Klansperson, Zellner met Martin Luther King, Jr. to do research for a college sociology paper on race relations, for which he was expelled. Soon after, Zellner joined SNCC and was its first white field secretary. At a demonstration to protest the murder of civil rights leader Herbert Lee, Zellner was the only white marcher. In front of several police, a mob of angry whites began to beat Zellner for being a "nigger lover." When Bob Moses and Charles McDew tried to protect him, the police beat them back so that Zellner would remain unprotected.
Lawrence Guyot helped organize Freedom Summer, which led to the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In 1963, while attempting to free Fannie Lou Hamer and her colleagues from a Winona, Mississippi jail, he too suffered a severe beating. Under his direction, the MFDP went on to challenge the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention.
As the chair of SNCC from 1961-1963, Charles McDew worked primarily in Mississippi. "We came to Mississippi because this is where we had to be. We were prepared to give our blood to see things change," he explained. At more than one point in the struggle, he did. He recalled for students a night when he sat in jail, lost in thought, hoping that he wouldnt beg for his life. He saw blood on the floor, and slowly realized that it was his own. A white man was beating his head with a knotted rope, screaming "You aint never gonna marry my daughter." McDew looked at him in amazement. "I dont even know your daughter," he said.
McDew was unequivocal about the role that the Summit could play in the history of the civil rights movement. "Your role is to continue that struggle, to make that next step. We can make Mississippi a showplace for democracy. This is not just a meeting about you all. This is a meeting for the country. You are the ones that should come out of here with a plan."
At the University of Mississippi, a group called Students Envisioning Equality through Diversity (SEED) has begun a number of projects. A committee is conducting research on issues related to diversity and equality, which is used to inform discussion groups on campus. Researchers also plan to inform the group about specific inequalities and ways to redress them. Through films, speakers, and various events SEED continues to create spaces in peoples lives for the fulfillment of its motto: "Uniting the Campus one Conversation at a Time." The group also plans to work with community groups to show that an interracial group in the state of Mississippi can work together for the betterment of all.
"I thought this weekend was a big success," noted Ole Miss student Tiffany Hamelin. "I have heard a great response from students and faculty on our campus. People are saying that they are really proud. Im very excited about where we go from here."
Other student delegations also developed action plans. Jackson State University students came away from the summit weekend committed to dialogue with each other, with their campus community, and with the statewide student coalition that will be meeting regularly to discuss shared goals and problems. "I dont think some of us knew what we were getting ourselves into, but it seems that we have embarked on an unimaginable journey," noted Jackson State graduate student Charles Matthews, Jr.
That this is happening in Mississippi is truly momentous. In 1980, when other campuses around the nation were rallying against apartheid in South Africa, students here were fighting apartheid as wellon the cheerleading squad, which was still not integrated. In 1982, John Hawkins became the first black cheerleader at Ole Miss. At first, things went fine. However, when he announced that he would not wave the Confederate flag due to its association with segregation, all hell broke loose. Friends from the Black Student Union and members of his fraternity had to escort him around campus in response to threats from angry whites. His dorm room door was burned; his room was flooded, and finally destroyed. Someone even threatened to get his father fired from a factory job.
During most of the 20th century, Mississippi was organized as a police state. In 1955, in response to the Brown school desegregation decision, whites organized Citizens Councils in nearly every town. These groups, which were closely affiliated and sometimes overlapped with local government, used violence and intimidation to maintain segregation. When civil rights workers intensified their freedom struggles, the state fought back by creating a state agency called the Sovereignty Commission. The agency used spy tactics, intimidation, and other illegal methods to maintain segregation. In some cases, the potential for using violence against civil rights workers is discussed in commission memorandums.
Today, most people are aware of Mississippis violent past. For this reason, the opportunity to achieve racial reconciliation is in some ways better than anywhere else in the country. "Inter-racial dialogue can catapult the state to the forefront of racial reconciliation," noted Guyot.
Still, it took persistent work by students, staff, and community members to finally get something named for a black person on the Ole Miss campus. In a moving ceremony during the Summit on Race, in the midst of where the Meredith riots took place, SEED planted a tree and placed a plaque in the ground. Mae Bertha Carter had braved the bullets that were fired into her home when she dared to send her 13 children to an all-white school in Drew, Mississippi. She eventually sent seven children to Ole Miss. Despite the honor, the university forbid the words "Freedom Fighter" to be placed on the plaque by her name.
The Summit inspired students from around the state. At Alcorn State University, students pledged to work on internal racism, and to work in the schools so that interracial playmates wont inherit the same stereotypes and separation owned by older generations. At Tougaloo College, students are motivated to deal with hate crimes, raise political awareness, and perform community service. Their Founders Day parade provided an unusual opportunity for the newly-formed statewide student coalition to bring members of several campuses together. As the interracial float road through the predominantly black community of Tougaloo, with its message of racial reconciliation, residents took note. "I was speaking to a lady whos a graduate of Tougaloo, and she said that the race relations group caused a bit of commotion, in that a large group of people were happy about what they saw," noted Matthews.
One issue that students discussed working on was the differences between historically black colleges and historically white ones. The campus of historically black Jackson State University has been compared to a ghost town for the shabby state of its facilities. While Mississippis historically white schools enjoy the newest facilities and the latest technology, students on historically black campuses complain of inferior conditions.
The Summit concluded with a march through town, from the campus Confederate soldier memorial to the city Confederate soldier memorial. Students picked up community members along the way. "People everywhere are talking about race problems. Not here," Guyot noted. "Here we are talking about race solutions. There is no reason to wait for the rest of the country or the rest of the world. If we can get the people of Mississippi to move beyond the racism that affects this state, then we can move to change the world."
What will happen next remains to be seen. Conference organizers are excited about the potential of what lies ahead. "From an organizational standpoint, this went remarkably well," exuded conference organizer Melva James. "I think we all are leaving this conference motivated to do something. In addition, we formed friendships and working relationships between the universities that has potential for long-term statewide solidarity among students."
In a state that consistently ranks at or near last in nearly every measurable indicator of the quality of life, the weekend was a much-needed boost. "This weekend could contribute immeasurably to continuing the struggle for race relations for years to come," intoned Associated Student Body President John Joseph. "The eyes of the nation are upon you." Z
Keith Wright is a writer/activist who lives in Oxford, Mississippi. He is currently working to establish the Mississippi Greens.