October 5, 2013 8:12:17 PM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
In his book, "An Education of a Lifetime," former University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat tells the story of his recollection of one of the most traumatic events in the university's history -- the riots on the Ole Miss campus associated with James Meridith's enrollment at the school's first black student in 1962.
Khayat had been a standout player on the Ole Miss football team a few years before. At the time of the riots, he was playing in the NFL with the Washington Redskins. He recalls watching the news footage of the riots with a black teammate, stunned at the disturbing images that flashed before him, pained that the ugliness would be associated with his alma mater.
It might be easy to assume that it was at that moment that Khayat's consciousness was raised to the degree that he would be compelled, first to recognize Mississippi's appalling failure in racial equality and then to devote himself to doing something about it. Khayat grew up in the era of segregation. He excelled in football at Moss Point High and later at Ole Miss at a time when neither school had a black player.
But that night did not produce an epiphany. It had come years earlier.
"No, no, no," says Khayat. "I don't think moving away from Mississippi had much of anything to do with it."
Since childhood he was aware of the injustice that was so often the norm, particularly in the South of his youth.
"My dad is Lebanese," Khayat said. "So our skin was darker, too.
"In 1932, my dad went into the Methodist church in town and sat down on the third row. It wasn't long until one of the women of the church approached him and told him, 'You can't sit here, but you can sit on the back row.' Ironically, he would up teaching Sunday School at that church for 50-some years.
"When I was a kid, discrimination is something we knew about. Because of that, respect was the value that was emphasized in our home."
That value has been a thread that continued through Khayat's life and was most challenged during his tenure at Chancellor at Ole Miss. His insistence on disassociating the university from its long-held allegiance to the symbols of the Old South is appreciated today, but was the cause of painful dissension at the time.
Under Khayat's direction, the university rid itself of the Confederate battle flag that had stood not only as a symbol of the Confederacy and Ole Miss, but of the brutal repression of the state's slave era.
It was not an easy fight. Khayat acknowledges many long friendships were strained, other irretrievably broken.
In the end, he never wavered, and Ole Miss today is the better for it.
"One of the really interesting lessons I learned is how emotional people can be over symbols," Khayat said. "During my days at Ole Miss, I always found people are a lot more likely to get emotional about a symbol -- whether it's a flag or a cowbell -- than the more substantive policy and academic matters, things that should have warranted far more of their time, thought and energy."
His autobiography isn't a life narrative. Instead, it is a series of self-contained stories and anecdotes gleaned from his 75 years.
Khayat initially thought he would sell a few thousand books, mainly to Ole Miss people who had followed his career.
To his surprise, the audience has proven to be much larger.
His publisher, Neil White of Nautilus Publishing in Oxford, expects the book to go into its second printing within a week or so.
"If only Ole Miss people bought it, which is kind of what I expected, I think I would have been a little disappointed," Khayat said. "I wrote about a lot of things and issues that affect people all over, some universal themes."
Ultimately, he says, the book is about respect. You can only imagine how disappointed Khayat must be in the wake of the ugly incident at Ole Miss last week when a group of Ole Miss athletes disrupted a play on campus about the death of a gay student in Wyoming by laughing and yelling slurs at the actors.
"What I have found to be true all along is this: People want to be respected," Khayat said. "They don't have to be put in the spotlight or have their names on a plaque or in the newspaper. They just want to be respected for who they are.
"And you know what? They should be.
"Regardless or race or anything else, people have a right to be respected."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]