Now that John McCain has decided to attend Friday night's debate, Ole Miss should be able to breathe easy. The presidential debate, after all, is supposed to be Ole Miss's big moment. Hosting the first such forum of the general campaign, administrators hoped, would help the school shed the racial-backwater image that has clung to it since its embattled 1962 integration, when 120 federal marshals could barely hold back the violent riots that left two civilians dead and dozens injured. The fact that the debate participants will include Barack Obama, the nation's first black presidential nominee of a major party, would only add to the symbolism. The high-profile event is a chance "to invite the nation and the world to visit us and see Ole Miss today," says university chancellor Robert Khayat. "This is a very different place from 1962. I'm confident that they will see that." (Click here for photos of Barack Obama's family tree.)
That might, however, be very hard to see if, as the University's Daily Mississippian newspaper reported on Sept. 12, the audience of thousands right outside the debate hall watching by simulcast includes some unwelcome guests: the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klansmen won't be wearing robes or hoods or making "a big hoopla," says Imperial Wizard Richard Greene, 46, who refuses to divulge how many members the Mississippi chapter has. Nor will they take advantage of the designated protest zone outside the debate theater to stage one of their typical demonstrations which include fiery speeches and a cross burning for fear of causing riots. "We don't want anybody to get hurt," says Greene, who insists physical violence is no longer part of the Klan way of doing things. But Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which studies hate groups and extremism in America, disagrees: "That's hogwash," he says, citing a lawsuit under way against a different Klan branch, the Imperial Klans of America, for allegedly assaulting a teenager at a county fair in Kentucky.
The Klan will, however, have pamphlets and membership applications on hand for any audience members who happen to share the Klansmen's views. Some examples of those views: Obama's election "could be the destruction of America," says Greene, who states categorically that he would not vote for a black candidate. Says the Emperor of the Mississippi White Knights (the group's ritual leader), who asked not to be identified: "Locally, every place that has come under black rule has declined, and has declined sharply." He cited Jackson, Miss., and Washington, D.C., as examples. "Not all black people are particularly bad people," the emperor adds. But leadership, he asserts, "is just not in their character ... it's just not in their ability." The Obama campaign did not return requests for comment.
But if their rhetoric is still as offensive as ever, the KKK no longer has much electoral influence, even in the Deep South. Clayborne Carson, a Stanford history professor and founding director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, says he can't think of one recent black politician whose candidacy has been seriously affected by Klan opposition. "They haven't been a significant factor for many years in American politics," he says, calling the White Knights' announcement a "publicity stunt." And many students say the plan for "invisibility" makes the Klan seem weak, not intimidating, and insist that no one on campus has any interest in entertaining the group's views. "Take our indifference," the Daily Mississippian's editorial board wrote in an open letter to the Klan on Sept. 16, "as the ultimate symbol of your failure."
African Americans now make up about 14% of the students at Ole Miss. Two recent student-body presidents were black, as is this year's chair of the alumni association. "The KKK, like most racism, is on the way out in Mississippi," says Brent Caldwell, president of the College Democrats at the university. "If [Klan members] come, both black and white students here at the university will protest," adds Black Students' Union president Brittany Smith. "This is not the same Ole Miss as it was 50 or 60 years ago." College Republicans president Tyler Craft agrees. "Is it perfect? I don't think so. Obviously it's not, or else there wouldn't be some small minority claiming that they're coming here as the Klan," he says. "But I think we're heading in the right direction."
Still, there are some cracks in this apparently united front. A quiet but frank minority of students at Ole Miss say racial tensions still exist. They point to the Confederate-soldier monument that stands just 100 yards from the statue saluting James Meredith, who led the 1962 integration of Ole Miss at age 29. (Meredith himself reportedly told a small group of student journalists that he was not permitted to speak at his own 2006 statue dedication; a University spokesman denies this, saying Meredith declined to speak of his own accord.) These students cite self-segregated fraternity houses, dorms, parties and tailgates as evidence that the campus is not as hungry for change as some students might suggest.
And sometimes they cite personal experience. As a new freshman last September, Jeremiah Taylor accompanied his white roommate to a fraternity party where he was the only African American in attendance. He says a partygoer, noticing him, commented, "Oh my God, I can't believe there's a nigger here." When Taylor turned to go, one student threw a beer can at him and some others pushed him down the stairs. In the ensuing weeks, he says many students suggested that by going to "their party" meaning one for whites only he had been looking for trouble. "I'm not in the fraternity circle," he says. "I don't know which parties you can go to and which you can't." After a university investigation, the fraternity members were suspended from conducting rush activities for one year and required to do community service and undergo racial sensitivity training.
Not surprisingly, Taylor is one person on campus who worries that some students may be more receptive than they let on to the Klan's message. And indeed, the Emperor of the KKK claims that after the Daily Mississippian published a story containing his e-mail address, the Klan received "a number of inquiries" for new membership including some from the university's students.
Susan Glisson, the executive director of Ole Miss's William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, notes that a smattering of groups working against racial strife have sprung up in recent years and that any viable candidate for student-body president must now include race reconciliation as part of his or her platform. Still, Glisson admits that racial tension "is a substantial problem."
Racial tension, of course, is not unique to Ole Miss just this Tuesday an Obama effigy was found hanging from a tree at George Fox University in Oregon, accompanied by graffiti mentioning a scholarship program for minority and low-income students and neither are self-segregated parties, frats, dorms or social gatherings. Many Ole Miss students, in fact, say their school comes under unfair scrutiny because of its past.
But ultimately, students and administrators say they hope the controversy over the debate will continue to advance the dialogue about race on campus and around the country. As Glisson puts it optimistically, "Bad speech leads to good speech."