Ole Miss just isn't Ole Miss anymore, and most people would agree that is a very good thing.
In 1962, two men were killed and scores were wounded when thousands of outsiders and students rioted as Air Force veteran and African-American James Meredith tried to register at the university, while Governor Ross Barnett stood barring the door. At the end of the confrontation, the University of Mississippi enrolled its first black student -- with the aid of 30 armed Federal marshals and the U.S. Army. Racial integration had at last arrived. Today, 20 percent of the university's total enrollment of 17,100 represent racial minorities and -- more to the point -- nobody thinks anything about it.
On Friday, the first African-American nominee for president will appear on the storied Ole Miss campus in Oxford to debate the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain. Nobody is talking about calling in the National Guard. There will be no frantic pleas between the Attorney General and the President of the United States on the one hand and the Governor of the state on the other to insure the safety of Barack Obama. That job is left to the Secret Service, which has the same responsibility for Senator McCain. The estimated three thousand members of the media are descending on Oxford to cover a debate, not a riot.
Another event is taking place on campus this week that is unlikely to attract the same media attention but that is still historic in its own way, and indicates just how far Ole Miss and the country at large have come in 46 years. It also indicates that the country still has some distance to go.
The university's Gay Straight Alliance is sponsoring a town hall discussion Wednesday night and workshops the next day on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues as they relate to the 2008 election. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network is participating in both. Retired Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett and I will be taking part, emphasizing in this time of economic crisis the high cost in financial as well as human terms of the repellent federal law -- the only federal law -- that makes discrimination legal.
In a burst of thinly disguised homophobia, Congress passed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in 1993, an ugly response to President Clinton's campaign promise to open the military to any qualified person regardless of sexual orientation. The law mandates that no qualified person other than a straight man or woman will be allowed to serve openly in the armed forces of the United States. No others need apply.
It's ironic -- happily ironic -- that Jamie, a graduate of Ole Miss who is all about opening doors, is a distant cousin of the governor who became famous for trying to shut them, and that he is standing with SLDN and a host of other civil rights organizations to end discrimination, not to maintain it. "I care about qualifications, not sexual orientation," he says. "Likewise I'm not interested if recruits are black or white or Asian or Latino. I want to know if they're qualified. Can they shoot straight?"
There is no question that recruits are needed. However, there is a question about what the country can afford. This week Congress is attempting to stave off a financial meltdown. Friday's presidential debate will address foreign policy and national security. How much money will there be for national security? We don't yet know precisely how bad the situation is that the government is rushing in to fix, but we do know that in the end it will cost a trillion dollars and counting.
Who is going to pay for these prodigious bailouts? China? Eventually, it is the taxpayer who will have to foot the bill.
So why is our government wasting many millions training gay and lesbian translators whom they then kick out, while offering $150,000 signing bonuses to others who will join up? Why are we, the taxpayers, spending millions of dollars to discharge perfectly qualified military personnel because somehow the word got out that they are gay or lesbian? How many thousands leave the ranks voluntarily each year because they don't want to serve in a military that requires them to be dishonest about who they are? How many who might have considered a military career never sign up for that same reason? Why are we engaging in these absurd practices when our troops are exhausted, overextended, and deployed again and again after their tours have ended?
We have answers to some of these questions. We know the repeal of DADT and the passage of a bill to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation would make a big difference. We do know that recruitment would rise and so would retention. There would be another bonus, harder to quantify but at least as important: respect for honor and integrity and the core values of the military.
I doubt that answers to these questions will come up in Friday night's presidential debate. Will the questions even be asked? I hope so but I do not know. I do know that they ought to be.