Before Robert Khayat served as chancellor of the University of Mississippi, he was one of its student-athletes. His new memoir “60: A Year of Sports, Race and Politics” chronicles his two-sport career amid the historical backdrop of the civil rights movement.
When Khayat was a student, Ole Miss athletes were forbidden to compete at the highest levels on the chance they might play integrated teams. Later, as chancellor, Khayat launched a campaign to change the school’s image, which included banning the Confederate flag.
In the book, Khayat also opens up about his father, who loomed large not only in his life but also in Mississippi politics. Edward A. Khayat was a Jackson County supervisor and two-time candidate for U.S. Congress who ultimately left public office amid alleged corruption charges.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You played for two legendary coaches at Ole Miss, Johnny Vaught (football) and Tom Swayze (baseball). How did they shape you?
Coach Vaught had a commanding presence. He came across as strong and straightforward, but somewhat aloof.
Coach Swayze was very much a coach and totally in charge, but he was also fun. He liked students, he liked athletes. He personally recruited almost every football and baseball player.
He was light years ahead of most coaches when it came to baseball. He taught us things other players had never heard of, and it served us well in those two very successful seasons — 1959 and 1960.
You write about how your father’s political ambition ultimately led to his downfall. What do you want people to know about him?
That he was fundamentally a good, good man. He was a giver. He loved us, but also his neighbors, and our community, and our state and America. He was into patriotism and loyalty, as well as being diligent, dependable and honest.
He was supportive of everyone in our community — regardless of gender, income, social standing, race, religion or nationality. Once he became a public servant, he spent all his days and nights trying to improve employment opportunities, education and health care.
Even after his trials, it didn’t change the way most people felt about my father. They still liked him, admired him and respected him.
What went through your mind as you witnessed the upheaval in Mississippi and the United States when you were a student at Ole Miss?
My classmates were the first to arrive on the civil rights scene. So, it was all new to us.
To be honest, my contemporaries didn’t talk about it. We all knew that segregation wasn’t right, but we (the white students) didn’t really know what to do about it.
But that wasn’t the case with the Black students of the era. They conducted sit-ins and wade-ins and made inroads toward more equal treatment.
I was, and have always been, in support of treating everyone with respect, Black or white, male or female, it doesn’t matter.
Mississippi changed the state flag last year, but other controversial symbols remain, such as the name of the Ross Barnett Reservoir. Are there further changes you would like to see in Mississippi?
I would like the basic value systems of Mississippians to include the Biblical value of loving your neighbor as yourself. That’s my greatest hope.
I never was in support of naming the reservoir after Ross Barnett because of what he did to Ole Miss and Mississippi. But I don’t know if we should change the name.
To me, all that doesn’t matter as much as what’s in your heart. I hope we can keep transforming that.
Was there any meaning behind your jersey numbers?
I wanted to wear 8 in baseball because that was Yogi Berra’s number, but I was given 22. In football, I wanted to wear 76 because that was Lou Groza’s number. At Ole Miss that was my number.
I was given 60 by the Redskins [now the Washington Football Team] in 1960. I didn’t realize the significance at the time. But as I aged and matured and reflected, it became clear that there was absolutely some significance.
Emily Liner is the owner of Friendly City Books, an independent bookstore and press in Columbus.