Summit on Race at Ole Miss

Keith Wright

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.
Mississippi’s first Statewide Student Summit on Race opened at Ole Miss on
the October 1 anniversary of Meredith’s 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 reasons—education, housing, wages, and prisons—we could talk about
how race affects every day life, but I think that this is the most poignant
example. When you can’t 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 wouldn’t 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 ain’t never gonna marry my
daughter." McDew looked at him in amazement. "I don’t 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. I’m 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 don’t 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 well—on 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
Citizen’s 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 Mississippi’s 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 won’t 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 Founder’s 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 who’s 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 Mississippi’s 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

Wright is a writer/activist who lives in Oxford, Mississippi. He is currently
working to establish the Mississippi Greens.