Growing up in the 1960s in nearby Holly Springs, he witnessed the racism that gripped Oxford and his alma mater, the University of Mississippi, where riots broke out in 1962 when James Meredith enrolled as its first African-American student.
Today, there is a statue of Meredith on campus, not far from the Lyceum, which is still marked with bullet holes.
That Ole Miss, as the school is affectionately known, will now host the first presidential debate Friday, featuring the first African American ever to be nominated for president of the United States, “is a dream come true for everyone I know in Oxford,” Smith said.
Likewise, the prospect of the debate being postponed -- as Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) proposed Weso that he and his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), can focus on the nation’s financial crisis -- is a nightmare.
“I’ve spoken with people down there,” Smith said. “I know they’d be crushed because they’re just so excited to put their town and their university on display.”
Indeed, the university has come a long way in overcoming its past and the South’s legacy of inequality. In 1977, it opened the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. African-American enrollment is up to 14% from less than 6% in 1995, according to the university.
The debate, years in the planning and at a cost of $5 million, cannot be easily rescheduled. University officials and the Commission on Presidential Debates were proceeding as scheduled, and the national media have descended already on Oxford. Pundits on both sides of the political aisle expect McCain to join Obama rather than ceding the floor -- and airtime on nearly one-dozen networks -- to his opponent. [UPDATE:McCain said Friday morning that he will attend the debate.]
But the mere threat of postponement has shaken Oxford, said Smith, who has a home there, near his father’s. His brother, who runs a chain of ice-cream shops in Memphis, Tenn., is moving back soon.
"When I was a kid, I watched the movie theater burn down. I remember colored and white places. When you grow up with that, you realize how wrong it is,” he added. “You have to learn how bad things can be before you can appreciate how good things can be.”
“Imagine struggling for decades, getting past your racial divisions and not being able to convince anyone because the big market media never comes,” he said. “Imagine having this wonderful story to tell about triumph over tragedy, having a metaphor for it in Barack Obama and being able to show that we’re as cosmopolitan a city of 10,000 as any in the United States, and then having this coming up?”