MAXWELL:  The man behind Mississippi’s sea change
2/19/2003 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Some places in the South, led by decent individuals, are trying to redeem themselves by confronting their racist past. Mississippi, through the example of the University of Mississippi, is such a place.
In 1963, when I was a high-school senior thinking about attending college, my classmates and I knew that the University of Mississippi was off limits. The year before, James Meredith had become the first black person to enroll at the then-all-white state university.
All hell had broken loose. Thousands of angry white Mississippians _ determined “to keep the niggers out,” as several placards read _ had descended on the Oxford campus. Riots broke out and two demonstrators were killed as federalized National Guard troops tried to keep the peace. For two years, armed troops remained on campus to ferry Meredith to and from classes.
The Confederate flag flew each day all over campus. On Saturdays, during Ole Miss football games, the stadium was a den of Confederate flags and calls to arms. Rebel yells were the accompaniment for the song Dixie at halftime and whenever the Rebels _ the team’s official nickname _ had a good play or scored.
But that is the past. Last October, University of Mississippi chancellor Robert C. Khayat dedicated a campus memorial to Meredith, paying homage to his courage to integrate the state’s pride and joy.
Pointing to the Meredith shrine, Khayat said: “We cannot undo the misdeeds of the past. We can express our heartfelt regret that equal rights and equal opportunity were once long denied to a large segment of our state’s population. Out of the tragedy of 1962, this university has risen to lead the way in racial reconciliation. It is time for the nation to see us as we are today, not as we were 40 years ago.”
As reluctant as I naturally am to do so, I agree that Ole Miss is not the place it was 40 years ago, when our homeroom teacher told us “to drive around Mississippi” if we were traveling west. I visited the university last year for the first time in 25 years, and I left impressed with Khayat and his staff.
In 2003, Ole Miss’ African-American student population is 13 percent. This figure represents the second-highest percentage of black students at any other capstone university in the nation. Incredibly, two of the last three student council presidents have been African-American. I met the black student from Ole Miss who has been designated a Rhodes scholar.
The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education reports that Ole Miss has 47 African-American professors, 6 percent of the total faculty. About 22 percent of the support staff is black, and blacks have served as dean of the law school, assistant dean of students, assistant athletics director, registrar, vice chancellor and head basketball coach.
What is the source of this sea change at what was once the bastion of racial segregation in the Land of Cotton? What made blacks remain in Mississippi and stop leaving their state to attend college elsewhere? I spoke with more than a dozen black students by telephone in January. Their answer?
Chancellor Robert C. Khayat.
When coming to Ole Miss and attending football games, Khayat was offended and embarrassed by the sight of Confederate flags unfurling over the stands like so much confetti.
Here is how the Journal describes Khayat’s action: “Without protest from First Amendment protectors, he banned sticks from the stadium. Since there were no sticks to wave their flags, most students and alumni simply left their flags at home. Khayat didn’t prohibit the band from playing Dixie, but he requested that it not be played as often as in the past. Black members of the band were free to choose to refrain from playing Dixie.”
At first blush, these moves seem to be symbolic, but they produced tangible results that most people on campus and in town appear to be happy with. But something besides the banning of sticks and the less frequent playing of Dixie happened at Ole Miss to reassure African-Americans that they were an integral part of the campus.
Black students tell me that Khayat earnestly cares about them. He genuinely wants to redress the racist acts of the past. He talks with them. He visits them.
“Dr. Khayat doesn’t take us for granted,” a senior from Jackson said. “He wants us here. Look, when the leader leads, other people follow his or her lead. That’s simple.”
As I spoke with these students, I wondered if Republican Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi native, had been on campus lately. And the governor of Georgia, who wants to bring back the prominent Confederate emblem on the state flag, could learn a few things about moral leadership from Khayat.