OXFORD — University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat is well aware of the significance of the nation's first black presidential nominee, Democrat Barack Obama, arriving this week on the same campus where James Meredith broke the color barrier in 1962.
The chancellor knows questions about race will come from the 3,000 reporters who are expected to descend on this Southern town. Feeling confident about the work the school has done in recent years, Khayat believes many journalists with opinions of the university forged by the riot touched off by Meredith's enrollment will be stunned by what they find at Ole Miss in 2008.
"They will find quite a diverse student population," Khayat said. "They will find African Americans in leadership positions on the faculty and the staff and in the student population. They will find a healthy slice of America where people from every segment of society are well received and given an opportunity to be successful."
A civil rights monument on campus, which was completed more than 40 years after Meredith graduated, features a statue of him. Students fought to include it in the plans. It stands near the famous Lyceum — the epicenter of the riots in 1962 and also familiar as the building used in the university's logo. On the other side of the Lyceum is a Confederate monument.
Meredith, who over the last few years has been celebrated on campus as a hero, said the university has used lessons from its past to move forward.
"Ole Miss is a step above every other major institution in America," Meredith said in a university news release. "That's why Ole Miss (is best poised to deal with race). They know more about the issue."
Meredith's son, Joseph, earned his doctorate in business administration from Ole Miss in 2002 and he received the Outstanding Doctoral Student Achievement Award. Joseph Meredith, 39, died in February after a battle with lupus.
Observers note that progress has been made at Ole Miss, particularly during the Khayat administration, which began in 1995. But some have expressed vague fears something could happen at the debate to further mar the state's national image, harm race relations, or worse.
The university's marching band, the Pride of the South, plays "From Dixie with Love" — a crowd favorite among the Ole Miss Rebel faithful. But Confederate flags aren't usually spotted in the stands since the university disassociated itself with the symbol in 1997. Still, it can be seen on campus sometimes, just as it is seen on bumpers of pickups and T-shirts around the South. The state flag still has the Rebel flag in it; an effort to remove it by popular vote failed.
Founded in 1999, the university's William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, which is named for the former Democratic governor and Ole Miss graduate, helps build "more inclusive communities by promoting diversity and citizenship, and by supporting projects that help communities solve local challenges" through a variety of projects.
Ole Miss officials are quick to note that black students have held every leadership position on campus. The school has a minority enrollment that accounts for 20 percent of the 17,601 total students. The last major color barrier left to be broken at Ole Miss would be to have a minority chancellor, which is a politically-appointed position.
Officials also acknowledge Ole Miss fraternities and sororities are still mostly segregated. Khayat noted the traditionally black Greek organizations do thrive at the university.
Donald Cole, one of the school's few black students in the late 1960s, was kicked out in 1970 over a protest of the de facto segregation that lingered years after Meredith.
White male students forced him off sidewalks. At football games, when the Confederate flags were still abundant in the stands and the sports teams were all white, fans would sometimes throw cups of ice on black students, Cole remembers.
Past experiences didn't stop Cole from taking a faculty job at Ole Miss in 1993. He teaches and has a post in the administration as a diversity officer. He acknowledges there are still problems attracting minority faculty because many are old enough to remember the riot in 1962. Others simply aren't interested in living in the South.
"Our name is still not the greatest," Cole said. "There is still a generation that was alive when they were not welcome here."
Cole believes the crowds arriving on the scenic campus for the debate will be impressed with the atmosphere and will see the university has worked hard on racial issues.
"It's a little secret that is going to be uncovered," Cole said. "Like our recruiting motto: Once we get them on campus, we've got them."
National media outlets will focus on the state of races issues in Mississippi in their debate coverage. Some observers note the state, according to some counts in recent years, had the most black elected officials of any state. However, none has won a statewide office since Reconstruction.
From just after the Civil War until 1877, the federally implemented civil-rights reforms in the defeated South gave Mississippi blacks new political power. Mississippian Hiram Revels became the first black person elected to either house of the U.S. Congress when he was picked to fill Jefferson Davis' unexpired term, and Blanche K. Bruce also was elected to the Senate. Both were elected by the state Legislature — which had some blacks and many northerners who migrated after the war — as was customary at the time. Other black Mississippians were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and statewide offices.
But Jim Crow laws persisted in the years after Reconstruction and things didn't begin to change until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Current U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, 60, the state's most prominent black elected official, agrees Mississippi and the university have come a long way, but said there is definitely room for improvement. The congressman, who took office in 1993 and has kept civil-rights issues a major piece of his platform, said wide economic gaps between blacks and whites persist in the state.
"We have very few African Americans who serve on bank boards in this state," Thompson said. "We have very few African Americans in appointed positions in state government. In that respect, given the population of the state, we have a lot to work at."
School officials know Obama's presence in the footsteps of Meredith and also in the state where many of the battles of the civil rights movement were fought will be fodder for news coverage. The battle between Obama and Republican John McCain, whose ancestors lived in north Mississippi, will draw a wide audience, most believe. Oxford will be the scene of the first debate between the two.
After the media grapple with race in Mississippi, Khayat believes reporters will explore topics like the quality of the university, the small-town charm of Oxford and the diversity of the student body. That will result in good coverage for the state, he said.
"I think it is a great opportunity for Mississippi to tell its 2008 story," Khayat said. "That's really what motivated our pushing so hard to be the host. We wanted our students exposed to this whole process, but we also wanted an opportunity to present ourselves to the world."