We Make It Hard to Settle Race-Tinted Issues in Mississippi

“What confounds you most about our state?” Sid Salter asked me in 2002. “Two things,” I wrote, “our lingering love to hate and our sand box mentality.

“Bitter the irony that evil seeds of hate and selfishness can grow in the same big hearts of people who reach out to help others in times of need. Mississippi schizophrenia – neighborliness and hate side by side. Can you not be a real Mississippian without hating something? It may be as superficial as hating Ole Miss or as sinister as hating people of different races or beliefs. Perhaps this need to hate comes from the same selfishness that drives our sand box mentality – only what’s in my own sand box matters and don’t you mess with it…friend.”

Sid asked me this question soon after we moved to settle the long-standing Ayers higher education desegregation case. I was a member of the IHL Board and one of three Gov. Kirk Fordice appointees who made up the board’s settlement negotiating team.

Racism, rooted in hate and selfishness, was manifest in the Ayers case.

The case started in 1975 and made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992. In 1999, both sides were still in court fighting each other over a remedial decree requiring the state to further desegregate universities. Plaintiffs wanted higher funding for historically black universities. Our side wanted to do as little as possible.

It was at this time that Ole Miss chancellor Robert Khayat and Mississippi State president Mack Portera came to the IHL Board and told us to quit fighting. The Ayers fight generated too much mistrust and ill will, they said. It made every decision affecting universities subject to racial bickering. It drained and wasted financial resources. It hurt the reputation of all our universities as they sought national recognition, e.g. pursuit of Phi Beta Kappa status by Ole Miss and State.

Despite strong arguments that we would eventually “win” in court, the board listened to our two dynamic leaders. With help from state elected officials, we moved to find a “win-win” settlement, one that would not harm any university but provide new funding, programs, facilities and desegregation opportunities for Alcorn, Jackson State, and Mississippi Valley. Agreement was reached in 2002. It still took until November 2004 for court appeals to end.

It took dynamic, forward-thinking leadership to settle the Ayers case after 29 long years.

Meanwhile, our flag fight is 15 years old. Our sand box mentality doesn’t care if the Confederate emblem in the flag has racist overtones and offends others, much like we felt for years about Ayers.

Now comes one of our young, dynamic, conservative leaders, House Speaker Philip Gunn, courageously saying we should put Christian values ahead of selfish desires and take down the flag. He has been joined by U.S. Senators Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran.

Stay the course, Mr. Speaker. We make it hard to settle race-tainted issues in Mississippi.

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