Earlier this school year, a visiting white student from South Africa spoke before a high school assembly in Oxford, Miss., about her life back home. Now, a group of black parents there have sued in federal court to demand ''equal time'' on the issue of apartheid - South Africa's policy of strict racial separation. They argue that students should also have a chance to hear what a black person's life is like in that country.
After meeting with a judge the day before classes ended last month, school officials agreed to have a South African employee of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Atlanta show a film depicting the lot of blacks under apartheid.
But the assembly for the film was held the last day of school and was not mandatory, as the earlier one had been. According to Tandi Gcabasche, the AFSC official who was to show the film, most of the students had left school before the assembly began.
Oxford Superintendent of Schools Bob McCord says most students were still there and the buses that take many of them home had not left.
But even the small number of students who came to the assembly never got to see the film. It was found to be damaged beyond use. Both sides in the conflict had the film in their possession at various times and both sides blame each other for the damage.
The assembly ''could not have been described as equal time,'' says the AFSC's Gcabasche.
Oxford Legal Services attorney John Buffington, whose daughter at Oxford High School was the first to complain about the assembly presentation by the South African student, says the case is still in US District Court. Eventually he wants the other side presented, he says.
The matter should never have involved a court, Mr. Buffington says. But a school assembly review committee, which never ruled on the first program, vetoed showing the AFSC film, he says.
Superintendent McCord says the commmittee's refusal came as many black and white students at the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford were confronting each other over use of the Confederate flag and the playing of ''Dixie.''
Since the conflict this spring, the university has stopped buying the controversial flags to give to cheerleaders. But neither the flag nor the song were ever official symbols of the school, a university spokesman points out.
The Oxford High assembly committee felt it would have been unwise to show the film on South Africa during heightened student tensions in the town, says McCord. But the committee ruled the film could be shown sometime. Students needed to turn their attentions to final exams, McCord adds.
But, he says, he found nothing ''offensive'' in the presentation by the white South African student in the first place, and placed no restrictions on her speaking at other locations.