OXFORD, MISS. — From across the square, you can just make out the banner draped across the courthouse in Oxford, Miss. - "One America - the President's Initiative on Race." But to get a closer look, you need to walk past a monument honoring Confederate soldiers, who "gave their lives in a just and holy cause."
At first glance, it's not the most promising venue for a national dialogue on race. Racial conflict runs deep in Mississippi, once the No. 1 state in the nation for the lynching of African-American men and the unexplained disappearances of civil rights workers.
What distinguishes tiny Oxford from other sites where the President's Initiative on Race (PIR) has tried to spark a national dialogue is that race has never been off the agenda here. Few places take race matters as seriously. If America is to enter the 21st century truly having come to terms with its racist past, this hometown of William Faulkner could help show the way.
There was little dialogue on Sept. 30, 1962, when rioters swept through this square to block the admission of the first black student to the University of Mississippi. At the end of the melee, James Meredith was safe, but two men had been killed, 160 federal marshals injured, and 28 shot. It would take 20,000 federal troops to keep the peace.
Nor was dialogue the driving force behind the now-disbanded Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, which waged a 21-year underground war to stifle the civil rights movement, according to documents released last month.
The record of reconciliation and healing is less dramatic than images of riot. In Oxford, you see it at Smitty's, where black faces are joining the wall of white politicians and beauty queens who chowed down on biscuits and red-eye gravy and signed off on a photo to Miss Louise, owner of 26 years. You can see it at the Square Bookstore, where books on the darkest corners of Mississippi's racial history are stacked high on tables. Most of all, you can see it in the lives of people who live here.
Oxford isn't a typical Mississippi small town, as locals are quick to point out. It has a university and a world-class bookstore. Boutiques are edging hardware stores off the town square. It also has a rich dialogue between the races that works at many levels here, from friendly banter between strangers in a grocery store to solid working relationships on issues such as public education.
Oxford resident Jerry Boone recalls two newspaper articles and photos circa 1910 of the burning of a black man accused of rape in his boyhood home of Corinth, Miss. In both published accounts, the names of the "leading citizens" responsible for this illegal execution were listed. One of them was his great-grandfather.
"The fact that the names were printed shows that no one thought that such an act would have any consequences," Mr. Boone says. "My great-grandfather was a good and honorable man. It's something I've just never been able to understand."
Such frank questioning of a painful racial past is one reason the PIR chose Oxford as the site of a public forum. Some 150 local residents joined interracial discussion groups to prepare for the March 16-17 events. Many groups continued work on issues such as education, religion, business, and the environment after the cameras pulled out of town.
Many of the citizens who met in discussion groups or at a pot-luck catfish supper on March 15, had never met before. What they had in common was the experience of living issues of race up close in a small southern town - and a desire to make things better.
"Maybe we're not yet where we want to be, but thank God we're not where we used to be," says former Mississippi Gov. William Winter (D), the PIR advisory board member who first proposed Oxford as a site for this forum.
For Nathan Hodges, the turning point in his own thinking about race was World War II. He was among the first wave of black soldiers returning from Europe. "We all came back with the attitude that we had served our country and that we were entitled to citizenship, better job opportunities, and better schools. We weren't given that," he says.
Days after testifying for a 1947 US Senate hearing on the intimidation of black voters, Mr. Hodges had a run-in with a sheriff who told him that his remarks against then Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D) of Mississippi "were not appreciated." The remark was a threat, he says.
"I told that sheriff that I had left 'white boys and black boys in the English Channel. Their parents did not have the opportunity to pick their burial ground. If they kill me now, my parents will have the opportunity to choose where I am buried.' He thought about it, and when he let me go, he said, 'Son, you be careful.' "
Hodges went to embalming school in Chicago on the GI Bill, then came back to Oxford to start a business and organize the town's first chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1952. He called it the Lafayette County Improvement Club, because it was too dangerous at that time to carry NAACP cards.
"Sometimes I got frightened," he says, especially after the discovery of the bodies of three slain civil rights workers near the town of Philadelphia, Miss., south of Oxford. "The father of James Chaney and I were born on the same plantation, and he was killed [in 1964] for doing the same things I had been doing."
Hodges says that he feels that he has earned "a seat at the table" in the civic life of this town. "We have heated debates. I make my statement. They make theirs, and then we compromise for the benefit of the community." The most important meeting, he says, was when black and white community leaders got together to save the Oxford public schools, after a federal court mandated an immediate end to segregation in January 1970.
Ken Wooton, the president of the Oxford chamber of commerce, also remembers those meetings. For many other towns in Mississippi, the answer to a desegregation order was a private white academy. But Oxford residents always appreciated the link between good public schools and a sound economy, he says.
At the urging of community groups, the school district delayed reopening Oxford schools. Meanwhile, some 1,000 volunteers turned out to help get buildings in shape. When Oxford schools reopened in February 1970, there were no incidents. A federal court later described this two-week effort to get rid of every vestige of a dual school system as "astonishing."
The need now is to break down barriers in other aspects of civic life, Mr. Wooton says. "The fact is that there is still exclusion on either side. There are black organizations and those seen primarily as white organizations. That separatism is the biggest problem in race relations."
Churches divided by race
Nowhere is the separation between black and white more evident than in Oxford's churches. "Eleven a.m. on a Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in Mississippi," Duncan Gray III, pastor of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, told a capacity audience at the race forum.
The Duncan Grays have a long history in Mississippi race relations. Duncan Gray II, his father, was pastor at St. Peter's when James Meredith came to Oxford and confronted an angry mob on the Ole Miss campus in his defense. On the eve of the riots, he challenged his congregation to ask if any could stand in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth, "look him squarely in the eye," and say, "We will not admit a Negro to the University of Mississippi." This sermon split the church, but had the full support of the Episcopal bishop of Mississippi, the Rev. Duncan Gray, Srs. - father and grandfather.
On the eve of last month's race forum in Oxford, the pastor of the Second Missionary Baptist Church, just down the street from St. Peter's, challenged his own congregation to make race relations better. The subject of his March 15 sermon was race, and the scriptural selection was from John 4, a conversation between Christ Jesus and a woman of Samaria.
"Jews and Samaritans didn't have any dealings with each other," explains the Rev. Leroy Wadlington. Pause. "People, we've got to get beyond these four walls and have dealings with one another. We can't forget our history, but we have to come out of our shells and get uncomfortable, if we're going to make it better."
The Baptist minister had already taken the first step. For a year before bringing the issue to his congregation, he had been meeting quietly with Reverend Gray to talk about race. More recently, they have preached from each other's pulpits, and they co-chaired the interracial discussion group on religion for the race forum.
Dialogue takes time and trust. Even the friendship between black and white pastors took time to develop, both men say. Gray says that what prompted him to seek out Wadlington was a question he had been asked by a student in 1994. "She asked me, 'What was it like in the black community in 1962?' and I realized that I didn't know. With all my good liberal tendencies, I had no serious friends or access or knowledge of the black community."
Wadlington credits Gray with helping him get beyond a fear of how his congregation would respond to change. "Duncan has allowed me to understand that sometimes you have to really get out of your comfort zone and go forward," he says. "Turns out, the congregation is excited about the direction we're going."
Gray credits Wadlington with helping him learn how to listen. "White folk are too inclined to jump in first with universals. I needed to hear what it meant to be black in Mississippi. That's important. And to do that without being paralyzed in guilt. It's not about ignorance, it's about human sin, and by God's grace that sin can be redeemed," he says.
Listening is a big part of the ongoing dialogue on race in Oxford. According to a new procedure, police are to be called in when middle school teachers can't break up a fight. The first four fights all involved black students, who were taken to the police station in handcuffs. Fight No. 5 involved white students, who were not arrested - grist for a lawsuit in many cities.
But parents in Oxford did not feel that rule or the way it was applied was racially motivated. Nor did their pastor: "These decisions were not about race. The superintendent is an honest man, he's not a racist. Even parents who had an interest in saying otherwise did not say that: We gave him the benefit of the doubt," Wadlington says.
"We were at our wits end," says Oxford superintendent John Jordan, explaining why a new policy on fighting was necessary. "The day after I met with black parents on this issue, there were three fights, one involved white students, and no one was arrested. We're rethinking the policy." He credits Wadlington and the black parents with creating a climate where discussion is possible.
Getting an honest discussion has been a tough problem for PIR groups. Some public meetings across the country have been so one-sided that, at a Dec. 17 forum in Annandale, Va., black audience members applauded a comment shouted from the audience, "Why is it that you people just assume that millions of white people want to be a minority in our own country?" The questioner, Robert Hoy, was escorted out of the hall. "They should have let him speak," says David Willard, a young teacher from McLean, Va. "At least it was a discussion."
Oxford businessman William Lewis says that he had had doubts that a public debate would be useful. "It's a gesture by the president to show minorities that he feels their pain," says the owner of the J.E. Neilson department store on the square. "I didn't want to go to the forum. I knew there would be a tongue-lashing for the white middle-class guy in the suit, but I just went and took it."
The dialogue that counts, he says, is what goes on behind the scenes. "There are towns in this state where there is no dialogue between races, and there they have private schools. We came together to support public schools at a time when others went private. We're ... proud of our public schools."
Forum organizer Susan Grisson resents how some news media cover race politics in Mississippi and the event in Oxford. She wrote a letter to the editors of The New York Times in response to a March 22 article headlined, "Pride and Prejudice: The South's History Rises, Again and Again":
"Mississippi, like the south and the nation, has much to overcome. In many ways, it is the epitome of America's sordid racial past. So, too, it offers much to heal and reconcile that past, if you would but take the time to look beyond your misconceptions about the state," Ms. Grisson wrote.
"Ultimately, however, it matters not what those of you who do not live here believe about us. We will continue to address our past and try to improve ourselves. We must do so, and we are the only ones who can. If there is no great American scapegoat for race relations, the lens will finally have to turn on your own communities to address your own conflicted pasts. After all, if Mississippi can improve, where does that leave you?"