By Lynn Paris
Last night I watched ESPN’s series, “30 for 30” as they chronicled the “Ghosts of Ole Miss.” It was the story of the Ole Miss 1962 football team’s – the Rebels -- undefeated season, told against the backdrop of the larger story of race and racism in America and the struggle, riots and mini-civil war that took place before James Meredith could enroll at the famous university. It took the will, intervention and the power of the U.S. Attorney General, Robert Kennedy and the U.S. President, John F. Kennedy to finally force the issue by sending in the National Guard.
It was an incredibly sad story, of Americans fighting Americans in Mississippi, a sad and shameful story that was replayed in a multitude of ugly and subtle ways in other states, at other universities, in other cities and among other people. During the film, one of the guys from the ’62 Rebels team mentioned that it was horrifying to realize that that appalling incident had happened a mere fifty years ago, but that he could perhaps understand it better when he remembered that the people at the school, and those rooting in the stands, were only three generations removed from the Civil War.
I was watching with the same horror, as the events surrounding Meredith’s desire to attend college made me aware of what a short time had gone by between those terrible days and now. After all, I was a teenager while the south was still segregated; I remember watching, on my black and white television from the safety of the New York suburbs, the bullhorns and the burned crosses and the freedom fighters and the sit-ins and the marches . . . I am of that generation, and most of the people I know are only one, at most two generations removed from it.
Which is why, although I abhor it, I also understand the undercurrent of racism that continues to exist in this country -- especially in the south, but no region is immune -- sometimes seeming to lie dormant and, at other times, so close to the surface that it’s difficult to deny, although almost all deny it vehemently. I understand those deeply ingrained habits, those distorted beliefs, that need to feel “better than” . . . I understand how all of that stored up resentment and bitterness and guilt and shame might make it tempting to find a way (or to believe the lies fed to you by FOX News, the tea party and the Limbaughs of the world) to paint Barack Obama as a socialist or an extremist or a Muslim or the “other”, anything that might make him go away. At Ole Miss, that’s all they wanted James Meredith to do.
It all sounds eerily familiar when I hear people at rallies shouting that they want their country back. In Mississippi in 1962, they wanted their country back, too. Well, I want MY country back too, the country where we take pride in the progress we've made, and then move forward.
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