In Mississippi, a Chance to Turn the Page on Race

John Whitesides, Reuters, September 25, 2008

For the University of Mississippi, Barack Obama’s scheduled campus appearance in a presidential debate on Friday is more than ironic. It’s a testament to progress.

The deep South campus, commonly known as Ole Miss, was the site of a deadly 1962 riot over the court-ordered enrollment of the first black student, James Meredith. The clash with federal troops sent by President John Kennedy became a landmark moment in the U.S. civil rights movement.

The state became the epicenter of the national battle over rights for blacks in the United States, and the murder of three civil-rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 helped spur passage in Congress of a law forbidding racial segregation in schools, employment and public places.

More than four decades later, the university is scheduled to host the first presidential debate involving a black nominee of a major party when Democrat Obama faces Republican rival John McCain on Friday.

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Blacks now comprise 14 percent of the student body, and the campus features a civil rights monument that includes a statue of Meredith.

‘THEY KNOW THE ISSUE’

On campus, Khayat [Chancellor Robert Khayat] helped to institute new rules in 1997 that effectively banned the display of most Confederate flags at football games, sparking a heated battle with traditionalists.

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The state is strongly Republican in presidential politics. More than three-quarters of the white vote in Mississippi is expected to go to McCain and more than 90 percent of the black vote to Obama.

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