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TINER: Debate is recognition of progress in state

tiner@sunherald.comSeptember 21, 2008 

In the nation's view of Mississippi and our people, we are perhaps most thought of in a historical sense, framed by two periods, the Civil War and the Civil Rights years.

The University of Mississippi's own image is seen through the prism of those eras, particularly events that took place on the campus nearly a half-century ago, when James Meredith came to enroll as the university's first black student.

Thousands engaged in angry and violent riots in which two died, and thousands of Army National Guardsmen were stationed in Oxford to assure the peace.

Mississippi was at the epicenter of Southern opposition to equality and voting rights for its black citizens, who then, and today, represent the largest minority population in any state of the union.

Civil Rights workers were slain here and burning crosses lit the night skies as the Ku Klux Klan terrorized those citizens who spoke out for their constitutional rights.

These horrible deeds and times are not forgotten, and as this new and hopeful historic week unfolds, the prior time will be remembered as a relic of our past. That time must also be seen in the context of progress and reconciliation. And as the eyes focus on Oxford, and Mississippi, and the university they will see a place that is remarkably American, and remarkably proud, to host the first presidential debate in the 2008 election.

The honor of being selected for this first debate is one that all Mississippians appreciate, made greater by the two debaters - Sen. Barack Obama, America's first black nominee of a national party, and Sen. John McCain, whose family is rooted in the soil of this state.

In ways that we feel deeply, Friday night's debate in Oxford represents the hope of words that echo from the grandest moments of American history, its founding documents and its greatest leaders, beginning with the Preamble to the Constitution, which speaks the desire of the people to form a more perfect union.

That is the essence of this moment: the more perfect union, the one that was torn apart in the Civil War, and also by the Civil Rights struggles.

Students from the University of Mississippi marched off to war in a long gray line and a great many of them died on battlefields across America.

A century later some students joined in the on-campus riots in opposition to a black student's admission.

This week hundreds of the current student body will be witness to history as the candidates debate the future of our republic.

That student body is a reflection of Dr. Martin Luther King's dream that "the sons of slaves and slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." Look America, Friday night, and you will see that truth in the bright-eyed-diversity of Mississippi in 2008. The dream will be alive in that auditorium.

Dr. King's dream spoke directly to our state:

"I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice."

God, yes, freedom and justice: not perfectly obtained, but generations of Mississippians have helped achieve a more perfect union than existed before.

Those who will come to Oxford this week, and those who will visit via newspaper and television images, will see the latest monument on the campus, a life-size bronze likeness of James Meredith, the first black student over whom riots raged. He appears to be walking toward a limestone portal topped with the words, "courage," "perseverance," "opportunity," and "knowledge."

Progress and reconciliation are alive in Mississippi, and Friday night will not be the last chapter on that march, but the most celebrated.

Welcome, America, to a new Mississippi, one whose membership in the union is rock-solid, and whose appreciation for the privilege of serving as host to the debate is profound. Together we await this splendid moment.

Stan Tiner is executive editor of the Sun Herald.

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