OTL: Ghosts of Mississippi


1. June 12, 1963

George Wallace is forced to back down and allow two black students to enter the University of Alabama. There will be no repeat of Ole Miss. That night in Jackson, Medgar Evers pulls his powder blue Oldsmobile into his driveway. His wife, Myrlie, who had found herself singing "Dixie" a year before, waits inside. About 150 feet away, Byron De La Beckwith steadies his .30-06 Enfield, lines Evers up in the crosshairs and pulls the trigger once.

The bullet tears through Medgar Evers' back, crashes through a window and comes to a rest on the kitchen table. Evers staggers for about 30 feet before collapsing. Myrlie screams, "Oh, my God, my God!" She cradles his head as his kids bend over his dying body and beg, "Daddy, get up!"

All-white juries trying De La Beckwith twice fail to reach a verdict. He will finally be convicted 31 years later.

James Meredith graduation
AP Photo
In August 1963, Meredith became the first African-American student to graduate from Ole Miss.

2. Aug. 13, 1963

James Meredith and the other soon-to-be graduates march from the library toward the Grove, passing through the Lyceum, where all the violence had taken place just months before. The last few weeks of class, Meredith wears one of Barnett's Never pins upside down.

His parents sit in the crowd as he walks across the stage, including his proud father, Moses, the son of a slave. Myrlie Evers is there, too. The commencement speaker tells the graduates the South is changing, more every day, and they need to take advantage and not be left behind. Two white women watch the graduates in their hats and gowns.

"Well, I'm glad he's gone," one says.

"There'll be others," her friend replies.

3. Jan. 1, 1964

Another Sugar Bowl, another SEC title. But something seems different. Tailback Mitch Terrell, who'd transferred before the season, realizes that whatever they'd had at Ole Miss is falling apart. He has seen tension on the coaching staff; once, a coach he was close to came into his room and cried, distraught about the infighting. "I could see the house of cards, coachwise, fixing to fall," Terrell would say later. "I knew there were strong personality conflicts there and it wasn't going to last."

Ole Miss hasn't won an SEC title in football since.

4. Dec. 5, 1964

The final score stuns those in the stadium: Mississippi State 20, Ole Miss 17. For the first time since 1946, State has beaten the Rebels, the final blow to a devastating season. Ole Miss began the season highly ranked but collapsed, losing to Florida, Kentucky and LSU, finishing the season 5-5-1 after getting beat by lowly Tulsa in the Bluebonnet Bowl.

Weatherly gets much of the blame for the bad season. Fans lash out at the quarterback's well-known music career. To them, bad coaching or recruiting didn't derail the Rebels. Rock 'n' roll did.

5. Nov. 6, 1965

In Texas, they call Houston halfback Warren McVea "Wondrous Warren." He is the first African-American to play against the Ole Miss Rebels, and on this day, he is uncoverable: catching touchdown passes of 80 and 84 yards, leading the Cougars to a 17-3 upset of Ole Miss.

Robert Khayat, the kicker for the Washington Redskins, is watching the Rebels from afar. Not long ago he was the big man on campus: star of the '59 football team, elected Colonel Rebel, an honor given to the most popular male student. But he sees the Rebels refusing to recruit African-American players and realizes the dynasty is fading. People won't remember Ole Miss for the dominant teams and the Miss Americas and the Sugar Bowl victories.

They will remember it for a long night in 1962.

Mississippi Highway Patrol
Harry Benson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Members of the Mississippi Highway Patrol move in on the town of Canton during the Meredith Mississippi March in June 1966.

6. March 18, 1966

Robert Kennedy walks into the packed basketball arena on the Ole Miss campus. He has been invited to speak and so many people want to listen that the administration had to move it here. When the crowd of more than 5,000 sees him, they give him a standing ovation.

During his talk, he makes fun of the bizarre phone conversations he'd had with Barnett. The crowd roars with laughter. Later, the former governor will lash out at Kennedy, claiming he lied about those phone calls. He calls Kennedy "a hypocritical left-wing beatnik without a beard."


In addition to interviews, this story was possible because of research already done about 1962 in Mississippi, most notably "An American Insurrection" by William Doyle.

"Integration at Ole Miss" by Russell H. Barrett

"We Shall Overcome" by Michael Dorman

"Rebel Coach" by John Vaught

"Dixie" by Curtis Wilkie

"The Past that Would Not Die" by Walter Lord

"Parting the Waters" by Taylor Branch

"A Long Night" by Ellen Douglas

"Egg Bowl" by William G. Barner

"Ole Miss Rebels" by William W. Sorrels and Charles Cavagnaro

"Mississippi: The Closed Society" by James W. Silver

"The University of Mississippi: A Sesquicentennial History" by David G. Sansing

"We Band of Brothers" by Edwin Guthman

"Dixie's Last Stand: Ole Miss, the Body and the Spectacle of Dixie South Whiteness" (University of Maryland philosophy Ph.D. dissertation) by Joshua Isaac Newman

The University of Mississippi Special Collections

Media reports from local, regional and national publications, including Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the New Orleans Times Picayune and States-Item, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Associated Press, New York Post, New York Independent-American, Sports Illustrated, Jackson Clarion-Ledger and the Jackson Daily News.

The Ole Miss Open Doors Oral History Project

The University of Mississippi Athletic Department Archives

7. Oct. 17, 1970

The old program has one gasp left. With Archie Manning at quarterback and a return to the Sugar Bowl the year before, Ole Miss is once again highly ranked, fourth in the nation, and undefeated through four games. They're talking national championship again. They've got historically weak Southern Mississippi next. But USM has an African-American running back named Willie Heidelberg who runs wild through the vaunted Rebels defense. Vaught calls the 30-14 loss the worst defeat in Ole Miss football history. He doesn't sleep that night, watching film of their next opponent instead. On Tuesday night, after three long days, he feels nauseated. "Boys," he tells his staff, "I'm sick. I've got to go home."

A few hours later, he turns to his wife in bed. "Something's wrong with me."

"How do you feel?"

"My arm's aching and I have a nauseous feeling in my chest."

He is close to a heart attack, and he spends a week in a hospital in Memphis. After he gets out, the chest pains increase, so he goes back in. Except for a brief eight-game return three years later, Vaught's coaching career is over. The season falls apart, too, with Manning breaking his arm and LSU blowing out the Rebels 61-17 in Baton Rouge. There is no Sugar Bowl bid; Ole Miss has never been to another one. No national championships. Vaught returns to his farm.

He will never recruit an African-American player.

That year, the Mississippi public school system is integrated.

8. 1973

Kenny Dill was the heart and soul of the '62 Rebels. Many blame the disastrous '64 season on his graduation; with him gone, there was no fire. No passion. He loved tough, hard-nosed football; he punched a teammate so hard during spring ball in '62 that he broke the guy's facemask, the guy's face and his own hand.

Like many students, he learned something the night of the riot, a lesson about what politicians should do. He moved back home to West Point, Miss., after leaving Oxford and, in 1973, he runs for mayor. He wins, grabbing a chunk of the black vote -- perhaps because black voters believe a young guy might be more willing to listen to their concerns.

Dill decides to be the mayor of everyone. He opens a dialogue with local NAACP officials, makes sure they know to call him anytime there is a concern. He goes about making West Point one city, not like other places in Mississippi, where integration will kill towns that don't know how to turn two communities into one. He restarts the Christmas parade, which had been canceled because whites didn't want blacks looking at their Santa. He brings basic services, such as roads and electricity, to black neighborhoods that have been left behind.

9. "Midnight Train to Georgia"

After college, Jim Weatherly leaves Oxford and goes out to L.A. He takes along a band, and they play all the bars, the Whisky A Go Go and the rest, competing with bands such as The Doors for gigs. He does a USO tour of Vietnam with Nancy Sinatra and appears in a movie. Eventually, the band breaks up, and Weatherly is down to his last seven grand. He feels listless and makes plans, when the money runs out, to go back to Mississippi and become a football coach.

One day, through connections he made in his weekly flag football game, playing with movie star Lee Majors, Weatherly begins writing hits for Gladys Knight and, on Oct. 20, 1973, one of his originals becomes the No. 1 song in America. He named it "Midnight Plane to Houston," but Knight wanted a different state and mode of transportation.

"Midnight Train to Georgia" remains one of the most popular songs of all time.

Years later, he'll be sitting in his home studio in Nashville, playing different versions of the song on the big speakers. Behind the keyboard, he takes my notebook and quickly draws the famous busted play from the Mississippi State game. Even now, he can see the look on the defensive end's face.

Confederate flag on campus
Art Shay/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
After being taunted by effigies and the Confederate flag during the 1960s, Meredith called for a ban on the flag in 1982.

10. Sept. 30, 1982

Twenty years later, Meredith is invited to speak at Fulton Chapel on campus. The atmosphere is tense. During his speech, he says "Dixie" and the Confederate flags must be disassociated from Ole Miss. A large group of white students storms out of the speech and, outside, chants "Hotty Toddy" and sings "Dixie."

11. April 22, 1982

John Hawkins is elected the first black cheerleader in school history. In an interview not long afterward, he says he will not carry the Confederate flag onto the field, as all cheerleaders have done before him. "While I'm an Ole Miss cheerleader, I'm still a black man. In my household, I wasn't told to hate the flag, but I did have history classes and know what my ancestors went through and what the Rebel flag represents. It is my choice and I prefer not to wave one. ... I am a black man and the same way whites have been taught to wave the flag I have been taught to have nothing to do with it."

12. April 18, 1983

Rumors are flying. The newly released yearbook contains a picture of white-robed Klansmen with Confederate flags. White students hear that black students are going to burn their yearbooks in protest. The yearlong debate about the future of the Confederate flag at Ole Miss, one that brought the Grand Wizard of the Klan to a football game and students collecting signatures on a petition to keep the flag, is coming to a head. That night, about 600 white students march to Hawkins' fraternity house, waving Confederate flags and yelling racial slurs.

A bit of 1962 is in the air. The students chant the same words their parents chanted a generation before: "Two, four, six, eight ... hell, no, we won't integrate."

University security and Oxford police officers break up the crowd before a riot can break out. The next morning, the student leader of the "Save the Flag" movement announces he no longer wants the job. Like many of his generation, he'd grown up believing the flag was a symbol of a great athletic tradition and school spirit. That night outside the Phi Beta Sigma house, he saw something darker, something Mississippians like to believe no longer exists.

The day after that, the chancellor holds a hastily schedule news conference, announcing that the University of Mississippi will no longer be associated with the Confederate flag and that no one connected to the university will carry or display it, including cheerleaders. The chancellor receives death threats and, the next fall, it seems as if every fan in the stadium is carrying the Stars and Bars.

13. Jan. 12, 1988

Ray Mabus is inaugurated as the youngest governor in the country and is featured in a New York Times Magazine story about the new guard changing the old Mississippi. He is the kid who wandered on the field after the 1962 Mississippi State game and asked Louis Guy for his chinstrap.

Afterward, Mabus will serve as ambassador to Saudi Arabia under Bill Clinton but he never forgot his roots: He keeps an Ackerman, Miss., phone book on the coffee table in his office. Later, he will become a senior adviser to Barack Obama's campaign.

He still has the chin strap.

14. April 17, 2001

The issue is put to the voters: Keep the Confederate stars and bars on the state flag of Mississippi or eliminate them? The man leading the crusade to eliminate is William Winter, the young politician who'd been so distraught the night Barnett spoke at the Kentucky game. He was governor of the state from 1980 to '84, when he started the first public kindergarten in Mississippi, fighting for civil rights for all its citizens. Covering the issue for the Boston Globe is veteran correspondent Curtis Wilkie, the Ole Miss student who received the letter from his mother urging him not to fight the Yankees.

On this night, when the results come in, Mississippi votes to keep the Confederate imagery, 65 percent to 35 percent. Mississippi is 61 percent white and 37 percent black.

Winter doesn't give up his dream of creating a Mississippi for everyone. At Ole Miss, the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation does work all over the region, getting white folks and black folks to sit down and talk about the past, and about the anger and the guilt that remain. He points to the 2008 presidential debate in Oxford as a sign that Mississippi is climbing out from the shadow of 1962. "We've been recovering all these years," he says.

The flag vote, though, is a sign of how much those old feelings still exist. In a recent political ad, one candidate for Senate attacked an opponent for supporting the removal of the Stars and Bars. Most Mississippians approve of having the Confederate Stars and Bars on the state flag.

"That tells you something about how far we still have to go, you know?" Winter says.

I want to believe we'll make it.

"Are we gonna get there?" I ask.

He smiles.

"Sure," he says. "We've come an incredibly long way from 1962."


1. "We are not lepers"

From his luxury box, Sam Owen is thinking about a night many years before, when all of this was drenched in tear gas. His iPhone rings -- he has ringtones from quacking ducks to the Ole Miss fight song. It's one of his three sons, Bryan, who played football for the Rebels in the '80s. The years have been good to Owen: He ran a complicated and large company, married that beautiful girl he went over to check on at the sorority house, took his boys to play the Old Course for Christmas one year, even wrote the poem that described the gift himself. He's got it in his will that the Ole Miss Band will play "Dixie" at his funeral; when you write checks like Owen, you can pretty much get a university to do anything you want. He's still a funny guy, known for calling a teammate, telling a joke, then hanging up. He still wears that Omega watch team members got after their Sugar Bowl victory -- had it sent to Switzerland to be cleaned -- and sometimes, he'll Google "1962" ... just to reminisce. These buildings, and this field, take him back, to a time when one South was dying and another was being born. Owen doesn't see that team as the end of an era. He sees it as a beginning.

"That was the bridge," he says. "I tell you what I believe. When you think about it, we were all raised under a system that we look back on now and nobody is proud of it. But guess what? Go anywhere else in this country, in any state, and they've got the same crap. I look at what Mississippi has done and how far it's come. Now you think about it. You walk into Oxford, and you'd never know there was ever a tear gas bomb thrown there."

About a dozen years ago, on a football Saturday, Owen and a group of guys from that '62 team stood around in the Grove, wondering why nobody ever seemed to bring up their perfect season, the only one in school history. "This is ridiculous," Owen remembers saying. "Everybody acts like we're the lepers. They ought to be talking about how we kept the university from closing. Nobody pays attention. It's like you didn't exist."

Right then and there, the guys conceived a monument to honor their team. In 1998, it was unveiled: an archway in the Grove that the team walks through every game day, another beloved tradition. It is called The Walk of Champions, and it was paid for by members of the 1962 Ole Miss football team. They are now remembered.

The players are older now and have drifted apart some. Many of them have new hips, new knees, chronic back pain. Owen recently canceled a vacation to Greece because his back hurt so bad. They've had diverse and mostly successful lives. Mayors. CEOs. A bunch of them went to Vietnam. Others became doctors, dentists, lawyers. They are the outgoing generation of power brokers in the South.

"There is the common thread that runs through here," Owen says. "These would be guys, if you had these fellows in your unit in the army, you'd take the hill."

Sam Owen
Joe York for ESPN.com
Owen and the 1962 Rebels are now remembered with the Walk of Champions archway in the Grove.

2. The long goodbyes

Fred Roberts and Larry Leo Johnson are sitting in a golf club outside Jackson. Roberts holds a roster, with little marks next to some of the names. "We lost seven guys," he says.

The first to go was center Richard Ross, in a plane crash. Six others have followed, and the survivors always show up, stooped and a little wider around the middle, standing in dark suits at funerals, just as they once stood in light suits at weddings.

One afternoon not so long ago, Billy Champion's phone rang. It was Wes Sullivan, his old roommate and running buddy, Wes Sullivan of the Pat O'Brien's fountain, of hunting squirrels in the Grove. He'd been sick for a long time, a rare blood disease, and he'd fought it hard. Champion and Sullivan talked about the old days for about an hour, Sullivan sounding as good as he had in a while. They talked about the old games and the nights out together raising hell, about a time when both were young and invincible.

Champion hung up and turned to his wife. "I think Wesley just told me goodbye," he said.

Two days later, Sullivan died.

After his heart attack, Vaught stayed in Oxford, on his farm, playing golf, visiting with his old players when they'd come back. The stadium was renamed for him: Vaught-Hemingway. In 2006, at the age of 96, he died. His funeral took up the entire church and an adjacent building. Outside the South, the newspaper story said, nobody paid much attention.

3. Hijacked by history

The Mississippi they knew as children no longer exists. The little towns where they grew up have blown away, cracked open by the decline of agriculture and bled dry by a political system that disenfranchised a third of the state's citizens for a century. Integration meant a chance at equality, but for a lot of guys on the 1962 Ole Miss football team, it also meant that the world they knew as children no longer existed, an effacement of memory, a past shameful and best forgotten in a place where the past is the bedrock of identity. It has left a generation of Mississippians drifting. They have a hard time expressing this, knowing exactly how it sounds, careful with their words, lowering their voices and looking to see whether their wives are listening before whispering, "The blacks ..."

When he returns to his hometown of Greenwood to visit, Buck Randall likes to drive around alone, past his old school, down the streets where he grew up and played. "Where I used to live," he says, "they're all black. Our whole neighborhood. Everything's gone."

Mitch Terrell sits in the lobby of the swank Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood, part of one Delta town's fight against the fate of so many other places in the state. Terrell is getting chemo after having some cancer removed. He's hoping to get his taste back; even the two or three glasses of Old Charter when the sun goes down taste dull. It's given him time, and license, to think. Done a lot of that lately. "All the little Delta towns are going," Terrell says. "Shaw, Drew, Shelby. It would break your heart to drive through Shaw, Miss. Back when I was growing up, it was a thriving place. Now everything's gone."

The guys from the '62 team want their state back, their youth. It's not segregation they miss -- "I'm not a black hater," Terrell says -- but a thriving place existing before the collapse of the rural economy. They're not economists. They haven't really thought about how segregation effectively ensured that Mississippi would have to claw its way into the 21st century. Instead of working to enfranchise black citizens quickly, many towns began figuring out new ways to segregate. Many towns opened all-white, private high schools. I went to one and never shared a classroom with anyone of color there. Problem is, my hometown of Clarksdale can't really support one successful school. Now it has two, and both struggle. Mississippi's children sink further behind, pulled down by the residue of past prejudices.

Sometimes, I worry we've already made our decisions and have no hope of undoing them. There is just such a profound disconnect between whites and blacks from that era, and many have taught their children and grandchildren so many unfortunate lessons, handing off old ideas to the young. Even something as simple as "Dixie" creates an unbridgeable gap. I'll be honest. I like it when the band plays it. It reminds me of my daddy, and I cry a little bit when they play it slow. All the former players share that sentiment. "I have never thought one thing negative when I hear that," Owen says, "just how much I love Ole Miss and that Grove and those trees." Then I talk to Wadlington, for whom the song brings back different memories: Ole Miss fans driving past his home after a game, blaring "Dixie," waving flags, screaming at his family. "I remember," he says. "I remember the cars. I remember the flags. I remember being the brunt of a lot racial slurs."

The guys from that team have a hard time understanding the other side's point of view. They feel as if their past and their accomplishments have been hijacked by history, and it bothers them in ways they know better than to say aloud. They just want the little grocery stores and the guy pushing burgers off a griddle and the safe streets back. They want to remember when it was OK to be proud of Mississippi.

Terrell starts to cry, wipes his eyes, apologizes for getting emotional. "I hate to think what my grandchildren are gonna grow up in," he says. "I know you can't live in the past, but I sure like to recall it."

John Vaught and Rebels
Courtesy of Ole Miss Athletics
Vaught's unbeaten 1962 Rebels remain the most successful team in school history.

4. Buck Randall: knocked down but unbowed

I pull up to Buck Randall's home in Clinton. This is my second trip here and, after hearing so many stories, I'm a little scared of him. He has done hard work since leaving football, including a stretch repossessing cars, carrying a piece for protection. The first time I met Randall, I had to help him stand up, his socked feet sliding on the floor, him sinking back into the couch. That made me sad. He'd been the most feared man in the Delta, but time hasn't been kind to Randall. He has had five operations on his knees, then had them both replaced, suffers from chronic back pain, had three heart attacks, had a stroke, has diabetes, wears a hearing aid. "I hurt every day," he says. One thing has remained untouched by time: His eyes are still a brilliant shade of blue.

I've returned to ask Randall a hard question. See, all the stories about the riot start with him being dragged into the Lyceum. There's no real explanation about why he was there or what he was doing. His teammates snicker when telling the story, hinting they know exactly what he was doing out there. Reporting a story makes you myopic sometimes, and I've come to believe that I need at least one member of that team to admit being an active member of that riot. Then I can ask whether they've repented, whether that night has changed them at all. My best chance, I figure, is Randall. Was he throwing bricks? Was he that football player the priest negotiated with? One history book says he was.

So I get to his house, and see his wonderful wife Sandra, who takes such good care of her husband. I talk with him about the old days. "Hell," he says, "it seems like I've been fighting all my life."

Finally, I ask him. What was he doing when Chief Tatum grabbed him?

"I went over there in front of Lyceum," he starts, "before the riot broke out."

James Meredith
AP Photo/Jack Thornell
While leading a March Against Fear to encourage blacks to exercise their voting rights, Meredith was shot on Highway 51 near Hernando, Miss., in 1966.

That's as far as he goes and, sitting in his home, I stop, too. The past few weeks have been hard on me. I found a photo of a young man screaming at Meredith. The face looks familiar. I think it's a family member. I show it to my mom; she says I'm wrong. I'm not sure. But I do not ask the relative; I do not press. There are questions that Mississippians won't ask because we are not prepared to hear the answer. So I decide, looking at Buck Randall, that it is unfair for me to demand a confession from him that I am not willing to demand from a family member. Some things seem best left buried.

5. The self-proclaimed most significant man alive

I pull up to James Meredith's home in Jackson. He raised cash for his house, in a middle-class neighborhood, by cutting down and selling those trees his father planted.

Time hasn't been that kind to Meredith, either. He was shot in 1966 making a "Walk Against Fear" across Mississippi. Martin Luther King Jr. finished the walk for him. He's gotten a reputation for being a bit off. Tell someone you're going to see Meredith and you'll get a look that says: Have fun with that. He worked for Jesse Helms. And David Duke. Nobody could figure out what he was thinking there.

Sitting in a little room off the side of the house he has turned into an office, he says, "You see, what most people have never understood is why ... the Ole Miss school thing, the white-black school thing, has such force and power ..."

He is interrupted by one of his granddaughters, who wants some milk. Meredith finishes his thought -- "it's about not accepting white supremacy" -- then walks slowly to the house to get her a glass of milk.

James Meredith in 2002
AP Photo/Steven Senne
Meredith, pictured in 2002, says, "I'm more significant than anybody living."

When he returns, he holds forth, about the books he has read, about reading "War and Peace" in Russian, about Churchill, about the great moments of Western civilization, about Barack Obama. He says he has hope for Mississippi because his going to Ole Miss killed the tree limb of white supremacy and it has been dying ever since. It's still hanging on to the tree, he says, but it's rotted and hopeless. Mississippi will one day be different. As he talks, I think I understand the weirdness people associate with him, the grandiosity. He's not crazy. It's just that, in his mind, he's one of those people who've changed the course of history. When he talks about Churchill, it's not as if he's discussing some distant leader but, rather, an intimate. A peer.

He remembers his actions, and the wave they unleashed on the South, and, well, he has been chasing greatness ever since. What's the second act when you change the world at 29?

"Not only am I more significant than Barack Obama," he says, "I'm more significant than anybody living. I ain't never not thought that, but you are the first person, and if you hadn't told me you were from Clarksdale and 31 years old, I wouldn't have told you. You're the first person I've ever told that. It doesn't really matter after a time whether it's true or not. Tell you the truth, most of the things that guided me, I never knew if they were real or imagined. I got to where I couldn't tell the difference at all between a dream and something I thought up wide awake. To me, it was the same thing. Became the same thing."

As we talk, a roach crawls out onto the floor, headed toward his shoes, then moves away, making its way around the room. The weirdest thing happens. He doesn't mention it. Neither do I. My eyes stay straight ahead. It just seems unfair to make him stop talking about Churchill and his own historical significance to address a roach crawling around his small, cluttered office.

6. "Nothing ever lasts forever"

Meredith statue
Meredith statue
AP Photo/University of Mississippi/Nathan Latil (top) and Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
In 2006, Ole Miss began construction on a statue to honor Meredith. The monument also includes a 17-foot-tall limestone portal capped with the words "opportunity, courage, perseverance and knowledge."

Glynn Griffing makes a familiar walk, from the dining area toward the Lyceum. The former star quarterback, who was born near my family farm, is wearing gray slacks, a blue shirt and a blue tie. He's 68 now. It's a beautiful fall day, and the leaves are turning, the coeds showing their legs, the lights of the football stadium peeking above the tops of the buildings. He looks at the faces coming and going and can't believe he ever looked that young. An Ole Miss football player, a burly African-American, passes him and doesn't pause to look at the older man sitting near the flagpole. Once upon a time, Griffing was the most famous person on this campus. Time marches on. "Nothing ever lasts forever," he says. "I knew it wouldn't last forever. But I never expected it to end as quickly as it did."

He remembers the night of the riot, the Confederate flag flying where he's sitting now, the tear gas. Now there are white and black faces here, walking together, going to the same classes, living in the same rooms. There have been so many changes. Robert Khayat, the former football star, is now the chancellor. One of the first things he did was make fans stop bringing the Confederate flag to the stadium. He, too, got death threats. He banned Colonel Rebel as the official mascot. He has overseen the university through millions of dollars in improvements and spearheaded the campaign to bring the presidential debate to Oxford. Understandably, Khayat is proud of the new Ole Miss.

Griffing stands, walks past the James Meredith statue behind the Lyceum that Khayat installed. There's a quote on it: "Yes, Mississippi was. But Mississippi is." That seems about right. He walks slowly, in color, not in black and white like those old photographs, a man who once knew glory but doesn't dwell on it. He's through talking to me about the past. The tear gas has faded away. He moves along the sidewalk beneath the oaks and magnolias. Nobody glances twice.


Reporting this story took me places I'm not sure I wanted to go. I've always loved Mississippi, but each new layer I unearthed made that love a more difficult and complex thing to maintain. I read James Meredith's hate mail. Not photocopies, the actual letters. I found my relative's name in the notebook, though never an explanation of why, and later, a photo of another great-uncle urging citizens to fight the feds. I realized for the first time how these symbols of Ole Miss football -- the flag and "Dixie" and even "Hotty Toddy" -- were once used as weapons. How for a third of my fellow Mississippians, those images bring back fear. I found myself wishing I didn't know any of this. That scared me.

But I did know, and now I had an answer to a question first asked in the library: What is the cost? I won't ever look at a Rebel flag the same again. Although I like "Dixie," especially when it's played slow, if it were never played again, I would be OK with that. Strangely, my biggest fear was that I'd be unable to enjoy Ole Miss football games, that I wouldn't be able to forget the images in my head from a time when these games served as a symbol of something else.

James Meredith
AP Photo
"It's about not accepting white supremacy," Meredith says of his motivation for integrating Ole Miss.

This past fall, the Rebels went a month without a home game, and that's when I did most of the library work on this story. I began to worry about the Auburn game. What if it was ruined for me? That morning, I got to my seats and searched inside for the first pangs of discomfort. I'm not sure what this says about me, but I still liked being there. Yes, it's OK to love Ole Miss football. It's part of me, just as the events of 47 years ago are. We are all of these things. They are our history. They are us. I didn't just feel shame researching this story. I felt pride in that group of guys, in Glynn and Sam and Louis and the rest. I am proud to have met them. I am fully aware that this will be the second story I've written ending with the Ole Miss band playing "Dixie." The first ran two years ago, an ode to Southern football, and that song made me think about my family. I still mean every word of that, as I do what I'm writing now, and believe that both can be true. Difficult and complex are not necessarily bad things.

Kickoff's close. I look up at the south end zone and see, in gigantic letters, "1962 National Champions." Seems some obscure poll voted the Rebels first. I read all the local coverage of that season, and there was no mention of this poll. But there it is, in huge letters. There's such a blurry line between fact and fiction about 1962 that nobody seems to mind that the university has rewritten history. Not only do we not like to talk about the past but we like to rearrange it to fit with our own ideas of what should have happened. This strikes me as dangerous: If we don't look at our flaws and culpability and learn from them, we seem doomed. The truth? The 1962 team was good, really good, especially considering the obstacles, but that year, USC was better.

The sign also brings me to the final question: What is the cost of not knowing? Many of the students here have no idea what really happened that night in front of the Lyceum. They know what I knew: brushstrokes and a few comfortable anecdotes. Maybe their families are different, but in my family, it wasn't discussed. I suspect their families are not different. Students here mostly believe what their parents believe; it's the reason the Daily Mississippian was the only daily student newspaper in America to endorse John McCain. Thoughts are handed down like monogrammed cuff links and engraved shotguns.

The band starts playing "From Dixie with Love." The moment's coming, one that makes me cringe, for the black students who have to hear it and for the white ones who have no idea what they're actually saying. The song speeds up near the end, and the crowd shakes once more. I don't know when this began, or why, but as it finishes, many of the students, some of them the grandchildren of those here in the long fall of 1962, yell, The South ... will ... rise ... again!

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com. He was born in Clarksdale, Miss., and lives in Oxford.

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