Why Mississippi is no longer burning

John Carlin on an unexpected outbreak of racial bridge-building in America's deep South
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The Independent Online
WHEN James Payne decided in 1990 that he was going to take a job at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, his friends up North said he was crazy. Mississippi was no place for an educated black man, a professor of history with a Harvard degree.

Mississippi was slave country, they said. Ignorant, backward, thick with racial hatred. And the university: what was he thinking of? Everybody knew it had always been a country club for the sons and daughters of the white plantation elite.

Five years on Dr Payne, now director of the university's Afro-American Studies department, sits in his office and reflects that, yes, in one respect his friends were right. "I have to confess that the major problem I've encountered here is the humidity. The summers are hell!"

A hefty man, Dr Payne shifts in his chair in uncomfortable recollection of months past. "That aside," he grins, "it's been a good experience. In fact I believe that if you could take Oxford and replicate it in the rest of the country the United States would be a much better place."

In the America portrayed in the media, through the eyes of the dominant North, Dr Payne is a rarity. He is a black man who is not angry. The OJ Simpson trial has exposed the rifts in perception between blacks and whites. Tomorrow the rift will deepen when black males take part in the "Million Man March" through the streets of Washington to the tune of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam's messenger of rage.

Black Americans are kicking and screaming. White Americans are gnashing their teeth.

But not in Oxford. Oxford is the land that America forgot, a refuge from the reigning national frenzy. The people move at an easy pace. They converse politely and at length, unassailed by the rigid obligations of time and the lust to get ahead. The air is heavy; the landscape, like the early-20th-century houses, is tidy, intimate and unspectacular.

The pride of the town is Rowan Oak, the discreet white mansion where William Faulkner lived for the last 30 years of his life. Faulkner described Oxford, the fictional setting for almost all his work, as a place where, if anything, the problem was that "everything, weather, all, hangs on too long".

The favourite meeting place is Square's, a bookshop where they serve coffee and sell T-shirts with printed portraits of Beckett, Wilde and Sartre. Mention "OJ" to a stranger in a bar and he won't rant, he'll point out - with mock pedantry - the analogies with the murder case in Dickens' Great Expectations. The chances are that the stranger is quietly writing the Great American Novel. The only jangling note comes from the more ostentatious members of the colony of would-be novelists - you can spot the phonies because they wear black and talk more than they write - who flock to Oxford from all over the country in the hope of being touched by Faulkner's muse.

"What you have here," says Dr Payne, "is an intellectual, creative environment you don't have in any other town of 10,000 people in the United States. It creates circumstances where you can disagree without being disagreeable."

It was not always thus. Barely 30 years ago black and white people could not drink from the same water fountains; they could not sit in the same restaurants, attend the same schools. If they complained they were arrested, or beaten, or lynched. (A black academic from the North said he felt the chances of being lynched in New York City today were greater than in Mississippi.) As for Faulkner, the townspeople thought him a pretentious, shabby, unmanly, drunken, ne'er-do-well, until he won his Nobel prize in 1949, whereupon they basked in the reflected pride of his renown.

Richard Howorth, the owner of Square's, said that both Faulkner's Nobel prize and the Meredith incident, when the first black student to enrol at the university provoked insurrection, were black eyes for the community. "People felt embarrassed on realising how they were perceived by the rest of the country so, jolted, they made amends. One thing Faulkner gave us was a tolerance for the behaviour of others which you don't find very often in the United States. And that tolerance then carried over into race relations, which are easier and gentler here than they are in the North."

Charles Wilson of the university's Centre for the Study of Southern Culture said that the South had gone through a catharsis. "The agonies and the violence people went through awoke them to the need to work together. Today the flashpoints of racial violence are not in the South. They're in the big cities, in Los Angeles. What's helped us make the necessary accommodation is that despite the differences, and the terrible history, we have a tradition of living together, a familiarity."

Mississippi is the state with the highest proportion of black people in America - almost 40 per cent - and the highest number of black elected officials. But, as Mr Wilson observed, civil as everyday relations may be, the churches remain segregated and black and white people do not socialise, do not, on the whole, make friends. Inter-racial couples are rarer than in the North and, while they might not be shot on sight as they once may have been, they are viewed with dismay, as if they had broken an unstated rule of Southern etiquette.

In an attempt to bridge the social gap Leroy Wadlington and Duncan Gray, black and white ministers of religion, have embarked on what they call an exchange programme between their two churches. They take turns to preach before each other's congregations. They bring the congregations together for joint services.

The Reverend Gray, an Episcopalian, says that for the first time in his life he has forged significant relationships with black people. Pastor Wadlington, a Second Baptist who was raised in the cotton fields, says it will be a few more years before the bridge is crossed.

"But the important thing," he said, "is that we acknowledge there is a problem, a problem chiefly of economic imbalance, for all the political gains we've made. We do not deny it, as the white people tend to do in the North. There the racism is more subtle, hidden and, I believe, more bitter and more dangerous. Here, because we all know each other, racists - white and black - stick out like sore thumbs."

Something else that sticks out like a sore thumb is a monument to the Confederate dead in the otherwise charming, terraced town square. "They gave their lives in a just and holy cause," the memorial reads, praising those who died in the Civil War in defence of slavery. Pastor Wadlington said that he had made a point of taking the children of his congregation to examine the monument. "If they know the history hopefully they can adjust better to the future. What we have learned from our experience here is that we cannot be dogmatic, attach ourselves to pure principle, if we are to progress."

Last year a black student from New York who was a brilliant actor was denied a leading part in a local play because he would have been required to engage a white actress in an amorous kiss. The black student was mortified because he knew that on merit the part should have been his. Pastor Wadlington talked to the relevant authorities and reached an accommodation. The kiss would be toned down and the student would get the part.

"We play it gently and slowly, sensitive to the way things are and have been, and, if progress does not occur overnight, in the long run race relations may be healthier and more stable. Rome wasn't built in a day."

Dr Payne, who comes from the more confrontational Northern tradition, acknowledges that the example of Pastor Wadlington and other local community leaders has been instructive. "Because of this ingrained civility in personal relations you don't have this vitriolic rhetoric. Because of the atmosphere of learning, because of the writer's culture and the spirit of Faulkner - a hero here even though I don't like him that much myself - you have building blocks for understanding, you have calmer voices. I believe that Oxford, Mississippi, can be an example to the rest of the nation because if we can do it here, you can do it in other places. There is reason to be optimistic".