Robert Khayat, author of the book "60", was the president of the Ole Miss M Club in 1960.
Robert Khayat, president of the Ole Miss M Club in 1960. (Nautilus Publishing)

Robert Khayat’s fascinating new book “60” — as in 1960 — comes with the subtitle: “A Year of Sports, Race and Politics.”

The year 1960 was all that and much more for Khayat, the future transformational chancellor of Ole Miss. What a whirlwind 1960 must have been for the impressionable young man from Moss Point, who turned 22 on April 18 that year.

Khayat began the year, on Jan. 1, helping the football Rebels crush LSU 21-0 in the Sugar Bowl. That spring, he was the slugging catcher for the Ole Miss baseball team that won the SEC Championship and would have been a national championship contender had it not been for the unwritten rule that barred Mississippi’s all-white colleges from competing against integrated teams. Drafted by the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, he was traded to the Washington Redskins before he ever played a game. As fate did have it, Washington was the only NFL team that had not integrated. He came in second in NFL Rookie of the Year voting. He was selected for the Pro Bowl, where a devastating injury would change his life.

Rick Cleveland

And that’s just the sports part.

In politics, 1960 was the year Ross Barnett became Mississippi’s governor and the year John F. Kennedy was elected president, thus foreshadowing a showdown that would come. On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, 1960 was also a year when Robert Khayat’s father, Edward A. Khayat, was gaining power and popularity as a county supervisor with much higher political ambitions that would later come crashing down.

As for race, well, in 1960 race relations provided the backdrop for most everything else. Indeed, Ole Miss and LSU played the rare rematch in the Sugar Bowl largely because neither was allowed to play against teams with Black players. The year 1960 was also when James Meredith first applied for admission to Ole Miss. It was when four college students in Greensboro, N.C., took a stand against segregation when they refused to leave a Woolworth’s lunch counter without being served, thus launching sit-ins and demonstrations in dozens of cities across the South.

On April 24, 1960, one day after Ole Miss clinched the SEC Western Division baseball title, an estimated 125 Black citizens protested the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s segregated beaches with a “wade in” at Biloxi beach. About 300 whites gathered on the seawall to challenge the protest. The protestors thought they would receive police protection. They were wrong. Many were badly injured. Twenty-three people were arrested, 22 were Black. A young Robert Khayat, the Gulf Coast native, was appalled.

Robert Khayat's book "60" comes eight years after his award-winning book "Education of a Lifetime."
“60” comes eight years after Robert Khayat’s award-winning “Education of a Lifetime.” (Nautilus Publishing)

Khayat’s book, edited by noted author Neil White for Nautilus Publishing, weaves all this together with rich, anecdotal storytelling. At times, it will make you laugh out loud. At others, it will make you want to cry.

This book comes eight years after Khayat’s “Education of a Lifetime,” which won numerous awards statewide, regional and national in scope. Says White, “That first book was framed on his years as chancellor, but Robert said then he thought he had a lot more stories he wanted to tell. In our conversations, he kept coming back to 1960 and all that happened in Mississippi, in America and with him personally. That’s this book.”

In it, Khayat writes much of his upbringing in Moss Point and his Lebanese heritage. His father was especially dark-skinned, so much so that he was asked to sit toward the rear of the Methodist church the family attended. The reader needs little imagination to believe much of Khayat’s later stance on social justice and compassion at Ole Miss at least partially was formed at an early age.

No report about “60” would be complete without at least one example of his anecdotal writing. In August of that year, Khayat flew to Chicago to take part in the annual College All-Star Game that matched a group of college all-stars against the defending NFL champions — that year the Baltimore Colts. The Colts’ lopsided victory was predictable. The Khayat’s first play was not.

“I assumed my position at left guard,” Khayat wrote. “With my hands on my knees I looked across the line of scrimmage and stared straight into my opponent’s sternum. The number of his jersey read ’76.’ That number belonged to a man named Eugene ‘Big Daddy’ Lipscomb.”

Big Daddy Lipscomb was already an NFL legend, a giant of a man. He dwarfed Khayat, who had just begun to shave.

“Big Daddy was 6-feet-8. He weighed just under 300 pounds. I was a 22-year-old kid from Mississippi. He was a 31-year-old man who grew up in Detroit. Big Daddy’s dark, thick beard was tucked behind a gray face mask… I looked up at him.

“‘’Boy,’ Big Daddy said, ‘does your mama know you are out here tonight?’

“‘Yes sir,’ I answered. Then the ball was snapped and I was dealt a crushing blow from his huge right forearm. Big Daddy brushed me aside as if I were a fly and tackled our ball carrier for a loss.”

Khayat ends that anecdote with this: “I began to wonder if professional football was really my destiny.”

As it turns out, Robert Khayat’s destiny far surpassed a relatively short, injury-riddled NFL career. Sixty-one years after ’60, we learn how that remarkably eventful year shaped his future.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.