OXFORD, MISS. — When Nic Lott walks around the University of Mississippi campus, he already looks like a seasoned politician - greeting students and pondering this year's presidential race.
Like many who come to this sprawling and modern Southern campus, where bursting crimson azaleas bloom around a monument to Confederate veterans, Mr. Lott says his heart has always belonged at Ole Miss, the oldest public university in Mississippi - and the one with the most segregated history.
As the first African-American student body president in campus history, Lott typifies how Southern universities - long a crucible of American race relations - are changing.
From the Gothic spires of Duke University in North Carolina to the antebellum lyceum here, many colleges are still struggling to shed residues of a racist past while fighting for multicultural harmony in the 21st century.
Perhaps nowhere is the symbolism of change more poignant than in the sight of this gregarious Mississippian, dressed in a blue cotton shirt, strolling around a campus that just 39 years ago needed National Guardsmen posted in doorways just to admit a black student.
"Sure it helps for other minority students to see that this kind of election can be won by a minority," says Lott, aware of the import but understated about it. "It certainly can't hurt, but race was never an issue in this election."
Even so, a new stream of racial incidents - often hoaxes - plagued schools in the South, and across the country, in fact, in the 1990s.
In February, racial bathroom graffiti, defacement of Black History Month bulletin boards, and vandalism to a hall director's apartment stirred up the Ole Miss campus. Lott says many students may not have even realized race was an issue until the incidents.
Students didn't riot as they did in the 1960s. Instead, they held candlelight prayer vigils to inspire awareness. Out of the ferment, the school drew up a list of recommendations, including the establishment of a new Institute for Racial Reconciliation and Civic Renewal.
Certainly Ole Miss isn't alone in coping with such events. Though isolated, they have occurred at many schools and have proven troubling for recruitment, especially as traditionally white universities try to lure African-Americans away from black colleges.
"There's still the tendency on the part of a significant number of people to think there's an uncomfortable and unwelcoming atmosphere for African-Americans in the South," says Christoph Guttentag, director of undergraduate admissions at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "But people who live here know that's simply not the case."
Despite racial incidents on the Duke campus, the university has stepped up minority recruiting. It has increased the awards in a scholarship program for African-American students from $6,000 to $18,000 per year.
But money, by itself, won't be enough to attract minorities. Some black students remain reluctant to enroll at predominantly white colleges in small Southern towns, out of a fear of isolation. Some also shy away from colleges that have experienced racial unrest.
Today, only 13 percent of the Ole Miss student population is African-American. Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge has 9 percent. Many minority students still turn to African-American universities even in an era when many question the need for such segregated institutions.
Putting off the haunting images of the past can be particularly difficult. It wasn't until 1961 that James Meredith, aided by the NAACP and US Supreme Court, was allowed into all-white Ole Miss. Even then, the governor barred his entrance. Riots broke out.
Similarly, at the University of Alabama, George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door in June 1963 and attempted to bar the admission of black students. Even today, conflicts over the Confederate flag continue to cause a flap on campuses, and many schools south of the Mason-Dixon line still have to follow federal court desegregation mandates.
Because of this segregated past, minority-student influence and power on campuses have been stunted. The creation of a vital African-American alumni base has been slow to develop as well.
Today, however, academics say race relations are improving - more than in other parts of the country. "We are aware of our past, and we know what must be done to heal in the future," says Susan Glisson at the Center for Southern Studies at Ole Miss. "All society has a long way to go. If anything, the South may be progressing faster because it has to make up for lost time."
The creation of campus racial councils, black student associations, and multicultural events have helped mend pre-civil-rights horrors. "I don't think you notice racism as much as you used to," says Donna Mooney, who attends the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "It's not in-your-face racism. It's more like, 'Welcome, let's try to get along.' "
During his tenure as student president, Lott wants to improve Ole Miss recruiting. Earnest and enthusiastic, he intends to travel Mississippi in a bus, telling high school students that the Southern school is a changed place, leaving history where it belongs - as a part of history. "We didn't go from James Meredith to me overnight," says Lott. "Erasing prejudices won't go away in a year, but we can do everything to make them go away as quickly as possible in this century."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society