No matter how many years he lived away, Billy Crews never fell out of love with Oxford.
Despite over three decades of raising his family in Tupelo and serving as publisher of that city’s Daily Journal, Crews returned to Oxford to accept a position at Ole Miss. Once again, he found home here.
Oxford set the foundation of the values that molded his life – public service, equality, and education. These values shaped his childhood, career, and personal beliefs. Oxford helped create the Billy Crews we know today.
For Crews, politics and threats to American democracy are the result of a lack of community. Crews says that currently, politics is more about the power held in the government and reflected in the media and not about the true core of being a political figure – which calls for bettering the community.
“Building community and serving it is all a part of our civic responsibility being in a democracy,” said Crews. Public service is every citizen’s responsibility, he said, and you do not have to be in public office to take part.
Oxford has been home for Crews through many chapters of his life. After his father finished his Ph.D., he accepted a job teaching English at the University of Mississippi, and the Crews family moved from Charlottesville, Virginia, to Oxford.
Settling into a faculty house on Sorority Row, a five-year-old Crews began his life at the university, years before he could enroll.
“As kids, we would observe students on campus. If someone was running for student body president or homecoming queen, we thought we knew them and who was qualified to win,” said Crews, explaining his early experiences with campus life.
Growing up in this environment exposed Crews to the university culture and lifestyle early, but this was not the most influential part of his childhood. Integration was.
In January 1970, the Oxford City School District integrated. Historically, integration in southern schools was not an easy transition. Protestors, petitions, and threats were all weapons used in an attempt to prevent African American children from entering their new schools.
Previously in Virginia, Crews’ Episcopal church had an exchange program that partnered with an African American church before integration. His parents valued this involvement and supported integration. When Oxford integrated, it seemed natural and complete.
“It was all positive for us,” said Crews. “I really couldn’t imagine living in a community and not going to school with the other half of the people in the community. It felt natural.” Integration of schools brought Crews some of his bestfriends, who would also greatly shape his college experience.
Crews graduated from Oxford High School in 1974 and attended the University of Mississippi in the fall. After years of living alongside the community of Ole Miss, Crews was now a part of it.
Drawn to serving his community and government, Crews majored in political science. “I have always been interested in public service, government, and making progress as a state,” said Crews.
While obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Crews looked to other organizations to find his community.
He became a house boy at the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house, where he served meals and helped around the house, and more importantly, was introduced to his future wife, Catherine.
Previously, Crews had become involved in student government and eventually served as Oxford High School’s student body president.
As in high school, Crews was led to student government at Ole Miss and eventually ran for associated student body president. Crews won and was officially the first non-Greek-affiliated candidate to win the position.
“I found it to be one of the most fundamental parts of my education,” said Crews of the opportunity. Being president allowed Crews to develop partnerships across campus and learn how to spearhead the events to help the most people.
Crews’ plan was to attend law school but decided to delay for a year to work. He was offered a job in Tupelo at The Journal Publishing Company (now Journal, Inc.) and remained there for 33 years.
This opportunity overtook his future law school plans but led Crews to be involved in public service more than ever. “At the newspaper, our mission was to pull people together in common interest and the common good. To improve the quality of life for all people.”
The Journal fulfilled this mission through its page one content – education, economic development, human achievement. “Those were the things we valued as a newspaper and thought were most important in the state. We were a private-sector business focused on public service,” he said.
Acting on those main ideas, Crews’ first role at the paper was to oversee The Lee County Reading Aide Program. This initiative put an assistant teacher in every first-grade classroom.
With his interest in bettering the community through projects and initiatives, friends, colleagues, Crews assumed that one day he would run for public office.
However, with the newspaper, he found the public service he valued was already available to him. He did not need to be governor to serve. He just needed to be an active citizen.
“I think a lot of people believe in power, not democracy,” said Crews. “In our country, there’s been the ideal of equal rights and opportunities but that hasn’t been the practice of democracy. We know better the ideals of democracy than we do the practice.”
In order to offset this negative effect, Crews said, average citizens must become involved in their communities and prioritize bettering their community each way they can. This is the future of democracy.
In the Oxford community, Crews has taken his role as an active citizen to fight for the removal of the Confederate statue on the Square.
“It’s not about erasing history. There’s an appropriate place for a statue, just maybe not in the middle of the community,” said Crews. This symbol does not represent the community of Oxford and should stand in a more appropriate location, he said.
“Yes, Confederate statues are just a symbol, but they are symbols of a system that has preceded us. Changing the symbols can precede the changes coming in the future,” said Crews. The systemic and cultural issues of something like Confederate statues can and will hold Oxford back, he said.
Crews moved back to Oxford to work for Teach For America and eventually the School of Education. This opportunity reestablished his love for Oxford and reminded him of the charm and community he grew up in.
He continues to push against the negatives and community status quo because he loves this town so much.
“Even though I may not agree with some of the challenges we still face here, I have a great love for Oxford and the university,” said Crews.
In order to change the narrative of politics from power to progress, it is going to take a few things, he said. “Thoughtful leaders, accountability of communities across the country, and folks that are interested in pulling people together instead of dividing is what will help.”
Although it is a group effort, change starts with you, the average person, he said.
“The very future of democracy in America truly leans on this idea of active citizenship,” said Crews. “Being a good citizen is the fundamental first step for everybody and bringing full citizens back into this country.”
Jane Granberry is a sophomore from Hattiesburg studying Integrated Marketing Communications with an interest in health communication. Jane serves as an Ole Miss Rebelette, Ole Miss Ambassador, Activities Director of Kappa Kappa Gamma Sorority, and Mississippi’s Miss Hospitality 2021.