Oxford Having breakfast at the University of Memphis before leaving for Oxford, Mississippi, home of the University of Mississippi, we were in a good mood after the Hooks Institute event the previous evening. We laughed at the number of people in the audience that evening who had raised their eyebrows when we had told them we were headed there after they had inquired on whether or not we might be available in Memphis the following day. Reputations obviously die hard.
Walking around the well-known town square in Oxford later that afternoon, we could understand the point some of our new friends had made somewhat better. A statue of a Confederate infantry soldier towered over the square in front of the courthouse dwarfing the signature store of the famous Square Books, whose locations dot many points of the compass there. William Faulkner dominates a floor of that bookstore. Continue walking and a bronzed statute of him sitting on a bench with a pipe looks at the courthouse as well. The famous saying that the past is never past is not his, but it seemed appropriate in a town dominated by a publicly funded state university still proud to call themselves the rebels.
We were there at the invitation of former ACORN organizer from the 1970’s and now Professor of Social Work there, Steve Soifer. Steve had been corresponding with me about showing the documentary, “The Organizer,” and talking about organizing whenever I might be close by, and I had mentioned we were going to be in Memphis not far away. He had arranged for several of his undergraduate classes to screen the documentary in two-parts, one in the morning session and another in the early afternoon, and we made it there in time for the Q&A. The students were surprised somewhat that I had been as young as they were now when I started ACORN. Others hailing from the Gulf Coast area were curious about the Katrina recovery area. They were most animated when Steve asked them to describe their class projects to me. The most intense conversation erupted when the question arose about diversity of the Ole Miss campus itself. The student body is now 13.5% African-American, while the state is closer to 38% African-American. It was hard to escape the point one student was making: it was better, but nowhere near good enough.
In the evening the screening attracted people from the community as well as a bunch of graduate students and some undergrads from other disciplines. This group was hungrier in its efforts to sort out ways to make a difference in these difficult times. They didn’t want answers as much as they wanted me to suggest directions they might go. I spent a long time talking to one activist student on the verge of graduating who seemed to have caught a bit of the organizing bug, and might hideaway in graduate school, but I could tell might as easily jump into organizing, making the journey to Oxford just about worth my while, if there had been no other benefit to be gained from the visit.
As the questions ended, I asked one older gentleman I had met before the screening if he didn’t have any final question. He commented that he knew as you got older you were supposed to become more conservative, but in these times, he didn’t find that, he said was getting more radical. I said, “Amen to that!”, and added, “…and more impatient, too!”