Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

At Ole Miss, Center for Study of Southern Culture Rethinks the Past

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Newhouse News Service

May 22, 1994

c. Newhouse

OXFORD, Miss. In 1861, the entire student body of the University of Mississippi enlisted in the Confederate Army.

A century later, in 1962, much the same esprit de corps still carried the day as students rioted in a last doomed but deadly battle to keep Ole Miss, as it is most commonly known, lily white.

Now, in 1994, the University of Mississippi is home to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the nation’s only graduate program in Southern studies. But something’s changed.

The master’s degrees these days are going to the likes of Susan Glisson.

Glisson, 26, who grew up in Evans, Ga., outside Augusta, believes her Confederate ancestors fought for a cause that was not only lost but profoundly worth losing. She says her “very Southern” older brothers, both ex-Marine construction workers with pickup trucks and tripwire tempers, would gladly pummel anyone who would hassle her about her boyfriend of five years, who is black. And she did her thesis on a radical white Baptist who created an integrated commune among the pines and peanut fields of rural Georgia at a time when the very notion of racial equality reeked of regional treason.

It is stunning testament to the changing South that 30 years since the Freedom Summer of 1964, which indelibly inscribed Mississippi on the national consciousness as the seedbed of Southern racism, the average student in Southern studies at the University of Mississippi is a liberal-to-radical who loves the South but is anguished by its history of racism and wants to make it right.

That only one of those 37 graduate students is black is telling evidence that not everything has changed.

Even as the Southern studies program recognizes that the life of the South is as much black as white, and in most ways an inextricable intertwining of the two, it remains hard to convince black students that the South, let alone the University of Mississippi, also belongs to them.

Nonetheless, in ways probably not fully appreciated even on campus, Ole Miss finds herself the midwife of a new era of radical deconstruction in Southern studies.

No longer is Southern studies understood to mean (white) Southern studies. No longer is Southern history a house of mirrors in which the myth and memory of the Civil War and the Confederacy careen every which way.

“Out of a 250-some year history, do we have to pick these four years of a miserable failed government to represent our region?” asks Chris Fullerton, 26, of Woodbridge, Va.

Fullerton, who worked at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond and never even considered himself left of center before coming to Oxford (“I really do like money,” he says), thinks the rebel flags that Ole Miss students and alums wave at football games are about as appropriate an expression of school spirit as a swastika.

Like most of the graduate students, Fullerton’s thesis focused on the black experience, in his case the Birmingham, Ala., Black Barons and the contributions Negro baseball made in sustaining the black community in the years leading up to the Civil Rights movement.

Times certainly have changed.

“We would have been run out of town 30 years ago. No question about it,” says William Ferris, the 52-year-old folklorist, “Blues doctor” ( he has a weekly radio show, “Highway 61,” heard throughout the South) and honey-drawled salesman of Southern healing who has been director of the center since moving here from Yale in 1977.

“We’re here at the heart of the beast,” says Ferris.

And that has its appeal.

“Racism is more easily confronted when it’s overt,” says Kim Darby, 26, of Montgomery, Ala., who was one of only a couple of blacks in the master’s program when she completed it last year. “If you can see your enemy, you can destroy it.”

Says Ferris: “To the degree changes comes to Oxford it comes everywhere. This is the innermost circle.”

As in hell.

Thirty years ago, Ferris, the son of a Vicksburg farmer, was completing a college career marked by campus civil rights activism in North Carolina. On his return home in the summer of 1964, he did something even more daring for a white Mississippian of the time, seeking out a meeting with leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. His father was so concerned he might get killed he went with him.

“It was a scary time,” recalls Ferris, and it got scarier as liberal white college students from the North poured into Mississippi for the summer as part of a calculated but risky strategy that their fate would hold more interest to the media and the nation than that of all the very many blacks who had died before.

It worked, insofar as Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney two whites and a black were quickly murdered and martyred, scorching public opinion with the horror of racist hate and heightening the sense of moral urgency that led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Even before, and ever since, Mississippi has been considered the heart of darkness of American race relations the state with the most blacks, the most severe apartheid, the most unrelenting racism.

“It is the state that is constantly compared to South Africa,” says University of Mississippi sociologist Bruce Williams.

Williams, who grew up in Saginaw, Mich., has spent eight years here, over the strict admonition of his grandparents who came from Money, Miss., where in the 1950s a black teen-ager named Emmett Till, visiting from Chicago, was lynched for whistling at a white woman.

“My grandparents put the fear of God in us `Never come to Mississippi’,” says Williams.

And that certainly would have included the University of Mississippi.

It is, after all, “Ole Miss,” as in what the slaves called the mistress of the plantation. Should it have been any surprise that in a region where lynching was most often justified as defending white womanhood from black rape or even a whistle white students should have been willing to kill or die to keep James Meredith, a black man, from entering Ole Miss?

There are still bullet holes in the white-columned administration building on campus from the long night of rioting back in 1962 that left two dead.

“Mississippi’s still tough,” says Williams, who says white attendance at his introductory sociology course drops about 15 percent when students know the topic will be race relations.

Steven Millner, the chairman of the Afro-American studies program at San Jose (Calif.) State University, says that when he taught that course at Ole Miss back in the 1980s, a dozen white students walked out when they realized they were going to be taught by a black man.

“I knew I was in Mississippi,” says Millner, whose great-great-great grandmother in 1851 was freed by her Mississippi slavemaster along with their three children, and sent to Ohio with three bags of gold.

But it is just that milieu that leaves Millner, who has taught at the center and still does summers, so impressed with the work of the Southern studies program.

“They are among the most courageous of our generation of scholars,” he says. “I don’t think there is any intention at the center to hide from the past in any way shape or form.”

And yet, few blacks enroll.

“So many black people want to get away from the South as soon as they can, and those that have never lived in the South don’t want to come here,” says Andrea Finley, the only black student currently in the master’s program. Finley, 25, who grew up one of eight children of a single mother in a small black community outside Forest, Miss., says she is constantly having to explain to black friends and family what she is doing in Southern studies.

She has no trouble answering.

“All of the black experience, from slavery to civil rights, comes back to the South,” says Finley. “We have to deal with these issues or I don’t think black people will find much peace. And the South is the place where you have to deal with it.”

“I definitely feel like I belong in Southern studies,” says Finley, adding, like a character out of Faulkner, “I love Mississippi. I do love Mississippi.”

For many of the Southern studies students, like Finley, it is much an odyssey of autobiography.

“Denied and repressed, a people’s history inevitably returns as personal anxiety,” Emory College historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese writes in the inaugural issue of a new journal, Southern Cultures.

But Ferris denies he or his center are the psychotherapists of the South.

“I don’t have any answers,” says Ferris. “Basically we’re here to provide a hearth where people can sit and talk about the region.”

But, he says, he hopes the center serves to heal.

“Our vision is a ’60s vision of building bridges between white and black worlds and creating a New South in a much clearer way than that phrase has ever been used before,” he says.

But it is clear that for many of the students, it is about an inner New South, a reconciliation of their own lives and experiences in a beloved but troubled place.

“Part of it is an autobiographically personal search,” says Eunice Milton Benton, 50, who returned to school in order to make peace with the Southern roots she both clung to and fled from.

Benton’s great-great-grandfather, John Milton, was governor of Florida during the Civil War and took the prospect of defeat hard.

“In the spring of 1865, he came home to the plantation where he had 50 to 60 slaves and 18 children, the last of whom, Jefferson Davis Milton, had been born Nov. 7, 1864, and died by his own shotgun,” says Benton.

In the fall of 1962, Benton found herself a student at Mississippi State College for Women known as “the W” as the Meredith controversy engulfed Ole Miss and all of Mississippi.

At the W, the women sang Dixie in the dining hall in solidarity with the state’s effort to keep Meredith out, and Benton was repelled.

“I realized how much I loved the African-American people I’d grown up with,” she recalls. “That connection was like a dagger in my soul and it made a radical out of a little southern girl.”

For Glisson, it began when her mother let her invite a black girl to her third-grade birthday party. As a consequence, she says, “the black girl was the only one who came. Everyone else had an excuse for not coming. We had a great time. My mother said, `More cake for y’all,”’ Glisson recalls.

It was only years later, looking back, that Glisson realized what had happened. “I was horrified once I figured it out.”

At the University of Mississippi, Glisson has worked to bring together Southern studies students with black graduate students from other disciplines in the hopes that they might spread the word that theirs is a truly inclusive program.

But Williams says blacks won’t begin to enroll in Southern studies until they see some blacks among the center’s very small core faculty and administration. Ferris says blacks who were on staff in the past left for other jobs, and that he hopes to be able to add black faculty, and increase black enrollment, in the near future.

But, says Ferris, “I don’t think we’ll ever have a completely integrated program.” He says African-American studies which at the university is affiliated with Southern studies will always provide a more focused and “nurturing” home for many black students. “There’s a need for both,” he says.

But everyone agrees that the existing Southern studies program suffers for the lack of black voices in the classroom.

It bothers Glisson, who finds herself once again thinking of the words of Chick Mallison, the white 14-year-old hero in Faulkner’s “Intruder in the Dust,” the original liberal in modern Southern fiction, who with an old white women and young black friend helps free a wrongly accused black man.

“Chick Mallison wants the South to be perfect,” says Glisson. “He wants to be with it, perfect.”



Written by jonathantilove

October 3, 2012 at 2:57 am

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