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Equality's Foe - Jim Crow


Colonel Reb is the mascot at Ole Miss.
Imagine a world where the dominant and minority races have separate restaurants, hotels, train cars, waiting rooms, bathrooms, swimming pools, drinking fountains, prisons and churches. Where people of different backgrounds must be born in separate hospitals, educated in separate schools and buried in separate cemeteries.

Sounds terrible, doesn't it? Would you believe that this actually was the way of life for blacks in America at one time?

Carlos Palmer studies law at Ole Miss
It's true. Between 1877 and 1960, African Americans had to obey a set of rules called "Jim Crow" laws that basically treated them like third-class citizens. They got the worst jobs, had to live in the worst houses and only a handful were allowed to vote. Not only were they not allowed to marry a European American, they couldn't even meet them for dinner at a cafe. In fact, blacks couldn't even swear upon the same Bible as whites in a courtroom!

Neda and I wondered how this could happen in a country whose constitution declares that all men are created equal. We set out for the Deep South where what we found both saddened and inspired us.

Neda struts down the Walk of Champions at Ole Miss
First things first: What exactly does "Jim Crow" mean? Well, in the 1800s, a popular form of entertainment was for a white man to put on a suit, paint his face black, sing a bunch of racist songs and dance around like a buffoon. One song that particularly got the crowd going was "Jim Crow." It eventually became a nickname for the many ways in which whites humiliated blacks.

After the Civil War, African Americans were given all the rights that whites had. But what went wrong?

One thing is that millions of whites across the nation believing they were chosen by God as being better than everyone else. Whites joined hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and blacks became the target of lynchings and other acts of violence.

It wasn't until the 1960s Civil Rights Movement that the impact of Jim Crow finally started ending. But have things really changed very much?

To find out, we ventured to Oxford, Mississippi - home of the University of Mississippi, also known as Ole Miss. For decades, this university was for white upper class kids only. Then an African American named James Meredith applied in 1962 and was accepted. When the university discovered he was black they told him he couldn't go to school there - but he came anyway. People were so upset about him coming that they had riots which left two dead and 350 injured. But, Meredith got his degree and paved the way for tens of thousands of other blacks.

s Today, almost 12 percent of Ole Miss' student population is African American. But racial tensions are hardly a memory. Just a year ago, a dorm hall director who was white started dating a fellow student who happened to be black. The people who lived in his hall wrote racial slurs on his door and car and threw asphalt though his window - twice. In the 1980s a black fraternity decided to move into a house on campus. It was burned to the ground.

Naturally, Neda and I felt a bit uneasy when we arrived at Ole Miss. Yet, we discovered that change has come - however slowly. For instance, fans have more or less stopped waving the Confederate flag at football games. Since Americans have a constitutional right to wave a flag, the football coach banned the use of sticks instead. It's not so easy to fly a flag without a stick, so many people have stopped trying to.

This has made a big difference to Ole Miss' African American population. Carlos Palmer, a second year law student, who agreed that there have been some changes on the campus in the past few years. "There used to just be a sea of Confederate flags at football games; now there's only a few."

As Neda and I drove away from Ole Miss, something Carlos said stuck in my mind. Before going to Ole Miss, he had gone to an all-black college in Mississippi. There, he had been part of a very accepting community that treated him with respect. But he said that he decided to attend law school at Ole Miss in order "to be in the real world."

If Ole Miss is the real world, I'm glad it's starting to change.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Assassination, ballot box stuffing, and eating in the bathroom: it's American politics!
Neda - This is America. We all have the right to vote…or do we?