History Lesson

“Negro to Address Ole Miss Class”

The headline you won’t be reading about tonight’s presidential debate.

Oxford, Miss., will host the first Obama-McCain debate

Somewhere in my attic there is a fading copy of a campus newspaper from 1967—my first year as a law professor at the University of Mississippi. The headline, as I recall, says “Negro to Address Ole Miss Class.” In the space of my own adulthood, a world in which a guest lecture by a black man was a front-page news story has morphed into a world in which a person of color will be speaking on the Rebel campus tonight as a candidate for president of the United States. When my wife and I first arrived in Oxford, Miss., she to teach English and I to teach law, we entered a deeper South than the one we had known growing up in New Orleans and North Carolina. We were not quite prepared for the triumphal playing of “Dixie” and the unfurling of an enormous Confederate battle flag over the entire playing field, marking the opening of every home game. Bullet holes still scarred our faculty apartment building from shots fired when three people died a few years earlier in the turmoil over James Meredith’s admission to the university. Until my wife, Anne, protested, the waiting room of the only obstetrician in town was still divided into designated “white” and “colored” sections.

The law-school dean was a liberal lawyer from Poplarville, Miss., who was determined to educate black lawyers on behalf of the state. He recruited some wonderful Mississippi lawyers for the faculty—as well as half a dozen newly minted graduates of Yale Law School. By my second year, more than 50 black students were enrolled in the law school.

As one of two Southerners in the contingent drawn from Yale, I was assigned to teach political and civil rights. I was told some students taped my lectures and sent them to the White Citizens’ Council. In an effort to combine the doctrinal material with the real world of the civil rights struggle, I invited several guest lecturers to my class. Mississippi pharmacist and state NAACP President Aaron Henry was my first guest, followed by the extraordinary civil rights lawyer Marion Wright (now Edelman) and William Simmons of the White Citizens’ Council in Jackson, Miss.

I can’t know for sure whether Aaron Henry was the first person of color to lecture at the university, but the campus paper certainly thought so and made of it a very notable event. One of my students—whose relatives were reputed to be Klansmen—asked whether he could sit in a chair in the hall and listen to Henry lecture through the open door. His religion, he explained, precluded him from being present at an event at which a black person was in a role of authority. I told him it would be up to Mr. Henry, who agreed to this “separation” with a ready smile.

It seemed at the time a historic event, which is probably why I still have that old newspaper. Now, on the day of the appearance on the campus of candidate Barack Obama, I am amazed at how close and how far away that Oxford of the 1960s really seems. One other event from that time is equally vivid: In the spring of our second and final year at Ole Miss, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tenn.,  80 miles to the north. The Mississippi state government kept its flags flying proudly at full mast. When black students at the university insisted the campus lower its American flag to half-mast, University officials sought to avoid “taking sides” by removing the flag altogether and leaving the pole bare.

In response, black students hoisted an American flag back onto the pole and stationed it at half mast. Reports circulated that rural whites with guns were headed to the campus to raise it forcibly to the top of the pole. Black students stood guard through the night. I had composed a guest editorial as a tribute to King for the student newspaper, but because of the concern over the possibility of campus violence, the university was closed and the newspaper did not print that day.

What I had wanted to explain to the campus about King was drawn from an observation by one of my Yale professors, the late Charles L. Black Jr., that the tragedy of Southern race relations is drawn from that prima materia of tragedy: “the failure to recognize kinship.” King had felt the bond of kinship between Southern whites and blacks, and he understood that his work could help liberate the entire South from the grasp of segregation. As I tried to explain to my Mississippi students, King came not to defeat but to redeem his white brothers and sisters.

Sen. Barack Obama comes to Oxford tonight in a far more exalted role than Aaron Henry did in his appearance as a guest lecturer 40 years ago. But while the fact of his race is no longer front-page news, I am nevertheless struck by the thread that connects both appearances. Tonight’s visit to the home of the Ole Miss Rebels by a person of color seeking the presidency of the United States is just one more step on a journey of redemption for Americans, both white and black. The fact that his race is not front-page news tells me we are on the right track.