10/17/2014 10:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Football and Race in Mississippi

Joe Murphy via Getty Images

JACKSON, MISS. -- There probably hasn't been as much unbridled celebration in Mississippi as is going on this week since the Secession Day Centennial parade in March 1961. The reason: At the midway point of the college football season, Mississippi State and the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) football teams are both undefeated and ranked Number 1 and 2 in the nation in the ESPN Power Rankings and 1 and 3 in both the Associated Press and coaches' polls.


The two teams appear jointly on last week's Sports Illustrated cover.

Why should this occurrence be of interest to people who are not from Mississippi and are not football fans? The answer begins with an admission: The opening sentence above is misleading and inaccurate. It is misleading because Mississippi has come a very long way from the bad old days of the 1960s and before. It is inaccurate because the massive commemoration of secession was, like almost everything else in the state at the time, confined to one race. Today, many blacks are cheering the football success along with whites, which means that it is likely that the current celebration is more widespread than any in the state's history.

The reason for reference to the 1961 festivity is that it was in that era a half-century ago that -- over the strenuous opposition of the state's majority race -- the foundation for what is being applauded today was laid.

Thank the Civil Rights Movement

It is beyond serious argument that the current success of this state's football teams is directly attributable to the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, which the vast majority of white Mississippians fiercely opposed. The same point applies to the other teams in the Southeastern Conference, which have won seven of the last eight national championships. (The other was won by Florida State, another formerly segregated university.) Can anyone imagine that happening if the teams were still all-white?

It is high time for people in this state and across the region to give thanks to the Civil Rights Movement for the changes it achieved -- in realms far more important than football -- to which the state and region's majority population was only brought kicking and screaming.

"Can [the missiles] hit Oxford, Mississippi?"

At a Saturday evening Ole Miss football game in Jackson 52 years ago, as the state government and most of the white population dug in to fight against integration of the university, Gov. Ross Barnett, choking back tears of emotion, told a frenzied crowd of 46,000 fan(atic)s: "I love Mississippi! I love her people! I love her customs!" The crowd roared its approval and burst into a song that included the lines "Never, No-o-o Never, Never, Never... Never shall our emblem go from Colonel Reb to Old Black Jo." A day later, what one historian has accurately called the "most explosive federal-state clash since the Civil War" took place on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford as a well-armed mob of whites sought to prevent a black student, James Meredith, from enrolling at the university. Two people were killed in the riot and 160 federal marshals were injured. But Mr. Meredith was enrolled.

The episode was so bad that when President John F. Kennedy was informed two weeks later that Soviet intermediate range missiles were being installed in Cuba, his first comment was: "Can they hit Oxford, Mississippi?"

A half century later, white football fans in the state are ecstatic about something that clearly would not be happening had those who fought integration prevailed. The roster of the top-ranked Mississippi State team is more than four-fifths African American and that of Ole Miss is three-quarters African American.

"Push us back! Push us back -- WAY back!"

Local newspaper columnist Sid Salter spoke the plain truth when he wrote recently that "Mississippians have long labored under burdens of our own creation." Almost all of those self-created burdens have been the consequences of racism. In the presidential election held fifty years ago next month, Mississippi, which in almost all previous elections had given the greatest percentage among all states to the Democratic nominee and had never before come remotely close to awarding its electoral votes to a Republican, delivered more than 87 percent of its votes to Republican Barry M. Goldwater. That was by far the largest percentage of the vote Goldwater received in any state. The white flight to the Republicans in 1964 is almost entirely attributable to President Lyndon B. Johnson's pushing through that summer of the Civil Rights Act and Goldwater's opposition to that legislation.

While we have come a very long way in the past fifty years, it is still common for white Mississippians to use "Democrat" as a synonym for "black person."

Despite the fact that Mississippi gets back more than $3 from Washington for every dollar it sends there, a majority of whites in this state routinely and reflexively denounce the federal government. Surely the largest reason for this widespread opposition to the state's best interests is that it was the federal government, in the 1860s and the 1960s and since, that obliged white Mississippi to relinquish many of what Governor Barnett termed "her customs" in the area of race.

A declaration once made by Booker T. Washington summarizes the self-defeating consequences of white Mississippians' long history of trying to hold African Americans down: "One man cannot hold another man down in a ditch without remaining down in the ditch with him."

Those in our state who continue to be motivated by race amount to cheerleaders yelling: "Push us back! Push us back-WAY back!"

A case in point: Defying fiscal responsibility as well as morality, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant refuses to accept the federal Medicaid expansion available under the Affordable Care Act. When it was reported in July that Mississippi is the only state that has had an increase in the percentage of its population without health insurance, Bryant took a page from Barnett and other state officials in the days following the 1962 Ole Miss riot. Then, the Mississippi authorities who had created and inflamed the riot blamed it on the federal officials who were trying to prevent it. Now Bryant says, "The ill-conceived and so-called Affordable Care Act is resulting in higher rates of uninsured people in Mississippi." Our state's governor has the gall to blame the increase in the uninsured on President Obama and the program that would have substantially ameliorated the problem, but Bryant himself rejected.

My fellow white Mississippians who are ecstatic over their universities' football success should now see and acknowledge that it was a combination of the Civil Rights Movement that they castigated as a bunch of communist agitators and the then- and still-despised federal government that forced the state to do what made possible the situation they now so loudly cheer.

Can the Religion of Football bring Us Societal Salvation?

In most fields in which well-being is measured, attempts to hold back one race have long kept all Mississippians down in the ditch. Now, in one of the few fields -- that on which football is played - where integration and cooperation have been fully implemented, the state has moved to the top. There's a lesson there for those who are willing to learn it.

Football is a religion in Mississippi and across the South. There is now a chance -- realistically, it's a small one -- that it could help to bring us salvation from our long legacy of hatred and division.

Is it too much to hope that what has been accomplished on the football fields by collaboration across racial lines might help people to realize that a similar cooperation in other areas of life is the route to moving Mississippi off the bottom of state rankings in almost every "good" category and the top of those rankings in almost every "bad" category?

And, if white Mississippians can identify with, embrace and cheer deliriously for teams that are 82 percent (Mississippi State) and 75 percent (Ole Miss) black, is it too much to hope that they might bring themselves to at least stop hating and show a modicum of respect to a president who is 50 percent black?

Robert S. McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College. He is currently completing a book manuscript, The Times They Were A-Changin' -- America in 1964.