Had the disturbance late Tuesday night been confined to words exchanged without racial slurs it might have been dismissed as youthful passion in excess, apparently fueled by alcohol.
But the epithets pushed the disturbance into a nationally reported racial incident at Ole Miss, which has worked for 50 years to distance itself from a racist past that included a fatal riot when James Meredith came in 1962 to enroll as the first black student.
It only takes a few people to smear good-faith efforts and diminish in the public’s eye remarkable progress in race relations at Ole Miss and in Mississippi. Chancellor Dan Jones appropriately condemned the student behavior and insisted, rightly, that it wasn’t representative of the broader university community.
The riot on the night of Sept. 30, 1962, has been described as the final battle of the Civil War, which the United States had won 97 years earlier. America also won the segregation battle waged by Mississippi’s then-racist political and civic leadership.
Today, Ole Miss has a respected Institute of Racial Reconciliation and a student body that is remarkably inclusive, but a few students apparently insist on living as if the world were pre-1962, or even pre-1865. The behavior is learned.
The unnamed student whose voice was heard by millions of people listening to National Public Radio and Mississippi Public Broadcasting on Wednesday morning said he and fellow anti-Obama protesters were standing up for “...the Republican side and the Confederate side of the University.”
He does the Republican Party and the university a disservice by linking them to the Confederacy. Ole Miss has banished overt and official Confederate symbols, and most of its most ardent supporters understand that necessity.
The candlelight unity march staged Wednesday night attracted more participants than the raucous protest of the previous night, and that’s affirming.
The racist attitudes, however, won’t cease until students change their minds, or when they no longer learn attitudes from others who haven’t accepted a fact of history: The old days are over; the world has changed.