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University Of Mississippi Looks to Presidential Debate to Showcase Progress


The host for the first presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, the University of Mississippi, is attempting to showcase the campus that nearly half a century ago drew world attention for a violent racial conflict. VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Oxford, Mississippi.

When the University of Mississippi began the quest to host a presidential debate several years ago, a large part of the reason was to draw attention to a school and a state that many people still associate with ugly incidents from the civil rights movement of the 1960's. It was here, in September, 1962, that violence flared after James Meredith became the first black person to enroll in the state school.

President John F. Kennedy sent federal marshals to protect Meredith and they were attacked by a mob of white supremacists. Two men died in the riot and this university and this town gained a reputation that lingers 46 years later.

The chancellor of the university, known popularly as Ole Miss, is Robert Khayat. He says he wants people around the world to see how this school and this community have changed for the better.

"I think they will see a progressive community," said Khayat. "I think they will see a diverse community. I think they will see a place where respect is a value that is embraced and lived. I think they will see a university that is out on the cutting edge in many ways. I think it is a close up look at a place that has not been looked at in 40 years."

Today 14 percent of the more than 17,000 students at Ole Miss are black. The overall percentage of minorities is 19 percent. One of the most prominent features of the campus is a monument to the civil rights movement with a statue of James Meredith near the Lyceum, the oldest building on campus and the focus of the 1962 riot.

As part of the program surrounding the debate Friday, the university is sponsoring a "Rock the Vote" party on the campus. In addition to music and other stage events, there are a number of politically oriented activities taking place. There are no classes on Friday, but many students are on hand to take part in the activities.