Ole Miss history hard to ignore on campus

Friday, November 22, 2013 | 10:55 p.m. CST; updated 12:40 p.m. CST, Saturday, November 23, 2013
From corner to corner, Oxford, Miss., is rich with history and tradition, deeply rooted in football. Missouri fans take time to experience the local culture Friday before Saturday's showdown with Ole Miss.

OXFORD, Miss. — On the Ole Miss campus, it’s tough to avoid the past.

As you drive through campus, the speed limit is 18 mph, a tribute to Rebels football legend Archie Manning, who wore jersey No. 18. Every building is built with traditional red brick. White columns mark the entrance to the houses on Greek row.

Rain sprinkles down as you enter the Circle. People lay claim to spots at "The Grove," a popular tailgating destination. On the edge of the circle stands the Confederate Monument, which pays respect to Ole Miss students who lost their lives in the Civil War.

Off in the distance is the Lyceum, the oldest building on campus and the most historic landmark in town. It lies at the heart of campus, marking the university's complicated involvement in the civil rights movement.

Friday marks 50 years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and his legacy is known on the Ole Miss campus. In 1962, Kennedy vowed to desegregate public schools by “whatever means necessary.” Ole Miss tested the president when then-Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett refused to allow James Meredith, an African-American student, to enroll at the university.

A riot ensued.

Thousands of people surrounded the Lyceum all night long. Two were killed, and hundreds were injured. Signs of the September violence are still present at the Lyceum even 51 years later. Bullet holes are covered by a fresh coat of white paint on the columns, the history of the building preserved within the bricks and columns. The riot stopped after a former Ole Miss football player climbed a flagpole, which still towers above the Circle, to attract attention and stop the violence. 

Meredith made history the next day. He walked through the doors of the Lyceum with federal marshals by his side to enroll in classes, ending a long battle between Meredith and the state of Mississippi.

On the backside of the Lyceum, a monument of Meredith has been built with the word "courage" shining in the light.

Meredith didn’t participate in the university’s commemoration of the 50-year anniversary of his enrollment last year. He still goes to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium for football games, though, Ole Miss tour guides say. But he doesn’t forget what he went through. Neither does Ole Miss.

The scene

A few miles off campus, where the 18 mph speed limit is lifted, the Square is the epicenter of Oxford culture. Book stores are around every corner, and lights decorate every building.

At 11:30 a.m., a crowd gathered outside Ajax Diner. Most men entering the diner were wearing khakis and sport coats, though Ole Miss gear was easy to spot. Inside, soul food was served, gravy covering nearly every dish, another mark of the Southern culture that is stitched into the fabric of Oxford.

By the time the sun set over the Square, piano music played throughout the streets and the book stores had filled up. A few hours later, the bars filled up too.

On the edge of the Square is Rowan Oak, the former home of Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner. Oxford was an inspiration for many settings in Faulkner’s novels.

Steeped in football tradition

Football is an unmistakable part of Ole Miss tradition. The speed limit signs are a hint, but the history has unfolded between the walls of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

William Hemingway, a former chairman of the university's Committee on Athletics, was the original namesake of the football stadium. But former Rebels football coach John Vaught built a successful enough program to get a share of the stadium name. 

Vaught helped Ole Miss win three national championships and six Southeastern Conference Championships and coached 26 All-Americans during his tenure, which ran from 1947 to 1970 and added another year in 1973.

This year's team is 7-3 heading into Saturday's game against Missouri. More than 62,000 people will still pack "The Vaught."

"It gets pretty packed depending on the game," Ole Miss freshman Ryan Flack said. 

Missouri visits Oxford for the first time since joining the SEC and is coming in ranked higher than Ole Miss. 

"This is a pretty big game for us," Ole Miss freshman William Mahoney said while guarding a spot in The Grove on Friday. "We should have a pretty good crowd."

The Rebels don't have any shortage of confidence or pride when it comes to football or their university. The crowd will be big, for the tailgate and the game itself.

It's what has helped Ole Miss build on its tradition year after year. 

Supervising editor is Nina Pantic.

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