During the fallout from the racist Oklahoma SAE video, I sent a text to my college roommate that simply stated “I’m really glad there were no cell phone cameras on our party busses.” He replied, “Very glad we didn’t have that. Really blessed.”
I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, big and small. One thing I am proud of is the evolution that I experienced regarding race while in college. Growing up changes people, and I hope that the twitter mob can grab ahold of that concept. Moments in our twenties don’t define us for all time.
I matriculated at Ole Miss during the height of what I will call the “Rebel Flag Wars”. Chancellor Gerald Turner had attempted to ban the stars and bars from the football stadium and the campus was up in arms. I had grown up in the private school system and, if I am honest with myself, didn’t really have views on race. I had never been around African-Americans who didn’t play football for my high school, though I thought of those guys as friends.
At Ole Miss I followed the herd mentality. I was in college damn it and no one was going to tell me what I could or could not wave around in a drunken stupor. “Heritage not hate” is what the sticker I put on my navy blazer said (the fact that I was wearing a navy blazer in the September heat at a football game should tell you something about my willingness to follow the herd). This was a free speech issue! It was, but I could have ridiculed the speech rather than going along with it. That was a nuance I was not prepared to acknowledge yet.
Soon though there was a day that changed everything for me.
A fraternity on campus, in response to attempts to ban the Klan’s flag from the stadium, had arranged to have the world’s largest rebel flag draped over their fraternity house. It was the size of half a football field. For a couple hours this seemed like the greatest thing ever. People were fighting back against the administration. No one could tell us what to do! Then it happened; I met the people who owned the world’s largest rebel flag.
These people showed up in Confederate uniforms and began handing out literature. Not only did they clearly hate African-Americans, they had a laundry list of others to hate as well. I had an epiphany.
I never ever wanted to be associated with people like these people.
At that point I didn’t become some crusader. I didn’t march and protest, but I did withdraw myself from the herd. Until then I was unaware of James Meredith, because the civil rights movement was nothing more than a page in a lengthy history book. I began paying attention to the history of the civil rights movement and my University’s particular place in it. The Band Played Dixie: Race and the Liberal Conscience at Ole Miss by Nadine Cohodas was particularly influential.
I love Ole Miss. Unlike many, when I return to campus for football games with my daughter the first place I take her isn’t the Grove. The first place I take her is the statue of James Meredith walking alone. We talk about how important doing the right thing is even when everyone else is doing something different. We talk about the power of healing. We talk about how I hope that she has the courage to be better than me.
I abhor the words and attitudes present in the Oklahoma video, but I hope that everyone can step back from the outrage and learn from this situation. Feel free to mock them for their stupidity, but don’t forget that they are people and people can change.
Let’s use this as an opportunity to make things better.