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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Oxford Town, One More Time

*Reposting original piece for new visitors*

About a month and a half or so ago, my family, the dog and I were out walking on the Ole Miss campus, and I saw, for the first time, the signs advertising the upcoming presidential debate the University wil be hosting in September. Of course, I'd known the debate was scheduled for some time, recognizing it as the coup it was for the town, the school and the state. It's the first debate of the general, and even then - despite the rancor of the primary season - I knew it was going to be a match up between Obama and McCain.

But on seeing the signs, with that understanding in my mind, I was struck with overwhelming emotion. "Are you crying, Daddy?" my littlest one asked. And yeah, sap that I am, I was. The historical significance just bowled me over. I kept hearing Bob Dylan in the back of my head, singing his ode to our fair town, back in the day, when it was far less fair:
Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev'rybody's got their heads bowed down
The sun don't shine above the ground
Ain't a-goin' down to Oxford Town

He went down to Oxford Town
Guns and clubs followed him down
All because his face was brown
Better get away from Oxford Town

Oxford Town around the bend
He come in to the door, he couldn't get in
All because of the color of his skin
What do you think about that, my frien'?

Me and my gal, my gal's son
We got met with a tear gas bomb
I don't even know why we come
Goin' back where we come from

Oxford Town in the afternoon
Ev'rybody singin' a sorrowful tune
Two men died 'neath the Mississippi moon
Somebody better investigate soon

Oxford Town, Oxford Town
Ev'rybody's got their heads bowed down
The sun don't shine above the ground
Ain't a-goin' down to Oxford Town
For the historically challenged, the song speaks to the chaos and hatred that accompanied James Meredith's enrollment at Ole Miss in 1962. It was, as a friend who runs historical tours reminded me just yesterday, the second time in less than a hundred years that Oxford was under US military occupation, the first having been in 1864 during the Civil War.

From the Wikipedia entry on the tune:
On September 20, 1962, an African American student named James Meredith became the first minority student enrolled in the University of Mississippi. His enrollment, ensured by the protection of the US Marshalls under direct order from then-President John F. Kennedy, sparked rioting on the campus of the university. During the ensuing violence, countless students were injured and two were killed. The song Oxford Town is concerned with the events surrounding the campus riots and the enrollment of James Meredith. In a larger scope, the song deals with the American Civil Rights Movement.
A black mark on Oxford and the University, for sure, and a moment in history that still reverberates here today. A couple of years back, after 44 years, the University erected a statue of Meredith approaching a portal to commemorate his struggle:

Well deserved and then some, considering what he'd gone through both here in '62 and beyond. Many of you might remember this iconic photo:

Civil rights activist James Meredith grimaces in pain as he pulls himself across Highway 51 in Hernando, Miss. after being shot during a voting rights march, June 6, 1966. Meredith, who defied segregation to enroll at the University of Mississippi in 1962, completed the march from Memphis, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., after treatment of his wounds.

In any case, back to the future. Or the recent past, as the case may be. I stood there, looking up at the signs, not far from the gunfire and teargas of 1962, with tears rolling down my face, hearing Dylan's song somewhere off in the distance. And when I learned yesterday that Dylan himself had endorsed Obama, it all came back.

There's a thousand and one reasons that I support Barack Obama; his progressive vision, his brilliance, his palpable sincere compassion and conviction, his willingness to fight; the list goes on and on. But I've never wanted to see him president simply because he's an African-American. Not that I didn't see his candidacy in that historic light, it's just never been a defining reason for my support.

But that morning, realizing that he would be coming here, to Oxford Town, the first black man with a real shot at the presidency (and that shot's getting stronger and stronger as the days go on), to this University whose buildings are still pockmarked with 46 year old bullet holes from the Meredith riots....well, it knocked me for one hell of a loop. It's almost beyond my ability to put into words.

This man, this great man, will be coming here to close that circle once and for all.

And beyond the incredible joy and pride that we'll all feel as Democrats and Americans, we should also see this in the light of history. It will be an amazing moment for Mississippi and America. And I'll be here, and my kids - who, in their blissful colorblindness, thank God, don't even understand yet why this is so astoundingly significant - will be here too.

And it just brought tears to my eyes.

"Yes, baby, Daddy's crying. But it's only because I'm happy."

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