Last Friday all eyes were on Ole Miss as the two Presidential candidates opened the debate season in Oxford, Mississippi. If you are wondering what the scene in the little Delta jewel looked and felt like, one Ole Miss senior took nonpartisan notes for Southern Living in the tailgate-like atmosphere.
(Photos by Lee Taylor, Ole Miss student)
The following dispatch comes from Weldon Pless, a senior English major from Birmingham who’s written for various publications while studying in Oxford. He spoke to me Friday afternoon from the famous Grove, the sprawling yard of live oaks where Rebel fans set up camp six Saturdays a year. I could sense the activity through the phone, the jam-packed excitement filling the shady space as Chris Matthews and Chuck Todd rubbed shoulders with students. And Weldon was right in the middle of the action.
The last time the University of Mississippi saw this kind of media attention was 1962, when James Meredith became its first African-American student. Ole Miss received the same level of exposure Friday, as thousands of journalists filled Oxford, this time to cover the first presidential debate. Media trucks representing all major news agencies crowded the campus. Banners announcing the debate hung from every lamppost. Concrete barricades blocked University Avenue on either side of the red brick Ford Center, the venue for the first debate. It was a spectacle.
Roughly 200 yards away, students and Oxford residents crowded the lawn on campus known as “the Grove,” to prepare for the event, much like SEC Saturdays. “Rock the Debate” signs hung from above a green wooden stage as a variety of bands filled the warm afternoon air with music. On both sides of the stage thirty-foot screens waited to broadcast a live feed of the debate from the Ford Center, and local restaurants set up booths along the perimeter of the lawn to serve authentic Mississippi cuisine.
Like most students, I didn’t get a ticket to the debate, so I went over to the Grove Friday afternoon to enjoy the festivities. I bought a catfish sandwich and fresh squeezed lemonade from a vendor and set up my lawn chair just as the Ole Miss gospel choir climbed on stage. Lawn furniture and quilts covered the grass. It felt like a church picnic, only everyone was wearing t-shirts and hats promoting their favorite candidate. Those who were undecided sported “Rock the Debate” T-shirts. The Grove was its normal sea of red, white and blue (our school colors, which worked out well for the patriotic event).
By the time the debate started, students from every corner of the University gathered near the big screens, watching with the nation as the two presidential candidates traded ideas (and jabs) about foreign policy in our performing arts center. I’ve never seen Ole Miss this unified. It was inspiring. Although the crowd cheered in support of their own favorite candidates, there was a feeling of unity. I saw Republicans and Democrats sharing blankets and circling up chairs. After the debate students chatted with reporters, smiled for the news cameras, and celebrated a successful spotlight on our town, quite lengthy strides since 1962. -Weldon Pless, Class of 2009