When Nic Lott walks around the University of Mississippi campus,
he already looks like a seasoned politician - greeting students and
pondering this year's presidential race.
Like many who come to this sprawling and modern Southern campus,
where bursting crimson azaleas bloom around a monument to
Confederate veterans, Mr. Lott says his heart has always belonged at
Ole Miss, the oldest public university in Mississippi - and the one
with the most segregated history.
As the first African-American student body president in campus
history, Lott typifies how Southern universities - long a crucible
of American race relations - are changing.
From the Gothic spires of Duke University in North Carolina to
the antebellum lyceum here, many colleges are still struggling to
shed residues of a racist past while fighting for multicultural
harmony in the 21st century.
Perhaps nowhere is the symbolism of change more poignant than in
the sight of this gregarious Mississippian, dressed in a blue cotton
shirt, strolling around a campus that just 39 years ago needed
National Guardsmen posted in doorways just to admit a black student.
"Sure it helps for other minority students to see that this kind
of election can be won by a minority," says Lott, aware of the
import but understated about it. "It certainly can't hurt, but race
was never an issue in this election."
Even so, a new stream of racial incidents - often hoaxes -
plagued schools in the South, and across the country, in fact, in
In February, racial bathroom graffiti, defacement of Black
History Month bulletin boards, and vandalism to a hall director's
apartment stirred up the Ole Miss campus. Lott says many students
may not have even realized race was an issue until the incidents.
Students didn't riot as they did in the 1960s. Instead, they held
candlelight prayer vigils to inspire awareness. Out of the ferment,
the school drew up a list of recommendations, including the
establishment of a new Institute for Racial Reconciliation and Civic
Certainly Ole Miss isn't alone in coping with such events. Though
isolated, they have occurred at many schools and have proven
troubling for recruitment, especially as traditionally white
universities try to lure African-Americans away from black colleges.
"There's still the tendency on the part of a significant number
of people to think there's an uncomfortable and unwelcoming
atmosphere for African-Americans in the South," says Christoph
Guttentag, director of undergraduate admissions at Duke University
in Durham, N.C. "But people who live here know that's simply not the
Despite racial incidents on the Duke campus, the university has
stepped up minority recruiting. …