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The Band Played Dixie: Race and the Liberal Conscience at Ole Miss.

For southerner, History is as much a pastime as bourbon-drinking, and football: even all these years distant, we can still wreck dinner parties with passionate arguments about whether Bragg or Forrest could have turned the tide. So this is an especially interesting moment in the old Confederacy, a year of two important anniversaries in our second civil war -- the struggle against Jim Crow. It was 40 years ago this fall that President Eisenhower had to send federal troops to integrate Central High in Little Rock, a conflict that marked the emergence of the power of network television by bringing the spectacle of white riots against black children to a nation just beginning, really, to understand the scope of the Southern problem. And it was 35 years ago that James Meredith tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi, a seemingly simple act that forced Eisenhower's successor, John Kennedy, to order U.S. soldiers into Oxford to prevent anarchy.

Both milestones are prompting journalists to ask the inevitable How Far Have We Come? question. On television, get ready for the old black-and-white images of John Chancellor reporting from Arkansas and of mobs of crew-cut crackers (I can say that; I come from Tennessee, and am married to a Mississippian) rushing into lines of helmeted infantrymen in Oxford. Historical anniversaries have a kind of liturgical significance: they force us to review the drama of our past and figure out what lessons we ought to draw from what has gone before. In the case of civil rights and the South, there are two overarching points that come out of the domestic passion play of the '50s and '60s. The first is that despite its current standing in the polls, the federal government was, once upon a time, a force for enormous good, and it is only the unthinking Southerner who unreservedly joins in the shrill anti-Washington mood of the moment. The second is equally important: race relations only improve when there is a change of heart as well as of law. This sounds obvious, but in a way the real story of race in the contemporary South is what happened after the high-water mark of the mid- to late-'60s -- after the March on Washington, and after the Lorraine Motel.

Nadine Cohodas, the author of a strong 1993 biography of Strom Thurmond, explores the tricky, terrain of the post-Movement South in this new book. She chooses Ole Miss and Meredith, and sets a high bar for herself: "The legal apparatus of segregation has been dismantled and replaced by laws with noble goals and the mechanisms to enforce them, and although minorities had integrated all facets of life, most visibly the political world, the reality of the 1990s, with rising resegregation in schools and neighborhoods and continued racial hostility, was not the one many of us envisioned...What had gotten in the way?"

This is a very difficult question, and Cohodas's choice of venue -- the internal history of Ole Miss, the largest university in what is, next to Alabama, the most racially fraught state in the country -- sheds only a little light on the answer. The best explanation may be that generations of segregation and entrenched attitudes take generations to undo -- and we don't know yet if they can ever be completely undone. To be sure, Cohodas shows that blacks have made once-unimagined progress at the school. This is a journey, after all, that began with James Meredith and the might of JFK's government forcing their way into a registrar's office. As Cohodas tells it, reporters asked Meredith whether he was happy once he enrolled. "This is not a happy day," Meredith replied.

It wasn't. Two men -- a reporter and a maintenance man -- were dead of bullet wounds; 166 marshals and 40 soldiers were injured. But Jim Crow had finally lost a skirmish, and would never really recover. For anyone familiar with the movement, these are familiar touchstones: the tear gas at Oxford; the recalcitrant Governor Barnett ducking the Kennedys' calls; Burke Marshall, one of RFK's "band of brothers" at the Justice Department, furiously negotiating on the ground.

Cohodas makes two original points worth considering. The first is a bit of largely forgotten history. The Lost Cause symbols that are even now causing trouble in the South -- the Confederate battle flag, team nicknames like the "Rebels," playing "Dixie" as a school's fight song -- were not traditions cultivated by men just off their horses from Appomattox. At Ole Miss the flag and "Dixie" were added to football pageantry in 1948, the year Thurmond and his "Dixiecrats" bolted the Democratic Party in Philadelphia when the convention that nominated President Truman adopted a procivil-rights plank. (As the movement grew after the Brown decisions in 1954 and 1955, states like Georgia would also cotton on to Old South imagery, especially the battle flag, as symbols of defiance and resistance to federal integration orders.)

Cohodas's reporting turns up a second insight: The country may not have achieved King's vision of racial equality, but all is pot bleak. She quotes two professors who recently wrote that Ole Miss, like the state, has something unique to offer: "a tragic history and the experience of attempting to transcend that tragic past into a triumphant present, to transform ourselves from a symbol of racism to a symbol of racial respect." Cohodas adds: "`Racial respect' was a striking term, careful, even modest -- a phrase that implied limits and boundaries and one that aimed for something less grand than `colorblind society' and more pragmatic than `race neutral.' `Racial respect' is not an attempt to blur or erase differences but to acknowledge and accept them so that a working whole can come out of separate parts."

Respect implies deference, and the exercise of manners. Without them all the court decisions and all the battles could never have sustained a gradually improving South. And the South is slowly, by fits and starts, getting better; there is still de facto segregation, of course, but it's even worse outside the old Confederacy. History, Robert Penn Warren once said, knows no leaps -- except the leap backward, maybe. I hope the country uses this anniversary year to remind ourselves what we have to do to stay on the road that leads us away from our, worst instincts, and toward our better ones.
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Author:Meacham, Jon
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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