The five black students from Jackson State University and the four white ones at the University of South Alabama in Mobile had something in common -- all were moving away from the Democratic Party of their parents.
The whites generally had moved to the right, taking a cue from the emergent conservatism of their region and inspired by one of the most popular political figures of their time, President Reagan. They were Republicans.
The blacks, however, were headed to the left, taking their signal from an equally popular personality, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. They voted Democratic, but labeled themselves independents.
The two political parties may be competing vigorously for the allegiance of the white southerners, but these black students here saw few differences between the two parties -- especially on issues the students considered of interest to blacks.
"In the South, Democrats show no difference in what I guess a northerner would perceive a Republican to be. It's all the same," said William Evans, a senior from Augusta, Ga.
Evans cited Georgia Gov. Joe Frank Harris and Mississippi Gov. Bill Allain, both Democrats, to make his case. "Those men no more would look toward the interest of black people than Ronald Reagan," Evans said, "yet Reagan is a Republican and those men are Democrats."
These students' parents were from an era when blacks shifted to the Democratic Party in two major waves -- first because of the New Deal and then in response to passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.
Van Whitley of Natchez said that identification with the poor and outcast is one reason he considered himself a Democrat, the only one in the room. "Sure they gave a lot," countered Carlton Reeves of Yazoo City. "But they're steady taking away, too."
He said the Democratic Party no longer stands firmly in favor of civil rights, voting rights, open housing and school desegregation. And he was disappointed that the party spurned Jackson's demands at the 1984 Democratic convention.
Evans contended that the principal reason the students continued to vote Democratic was that there was no alternative -- yet.
But it became clear when the discussion turned to issues why they were uncomfortable with both the GOP and a Democratic Party bent on returning to the mainstream.
At the University of South Alabama, the white students had said they were "proud" of the U.S. invasion of Grenada. When asked if he would go to Nicaragua and fight, if called, Michael Kennedy of Gulf Shores, Ala., a veteran, fired back, "In a heartbeat." The others agreed.
But they took issue with Reagan's request for $100 million to aid the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries, known as contras. "Either get in 100 percent, or get out," said Susan Carver, from Orlando. "Not another Vietnam."
The blacks students at Jackson State, however, unanimously opposed any aid or U.S. involvement. "The United States has a way of playing the communist game, the red-scare game," Reeves said. "If the Soviet Union is moving on into Central America, so be it."
None of the blacks could think of anywhere they would go to fight in the U.S. armed services -- unless it were against the apartheid government in South Africa or unless, as Evans put it, "the United States [changes] its attitude of supporting these people that suppress people."
On the issues of crime and welfare, the blacks were classically liberal. They listened in disbelief to suggestions that teen-agers would purposely have children out of wedlock, and prescribed more sex education as the solution and a government obligation to help financially all it could. They flatly ruled out capital punishment, saying that imprisonment itself was both punishment and the basis for rehabilitation.
By comparison, white student Sandee Sutton from Bayou La Batre, Ala., was having second thoughts about government assistance to all but the elderly. "Competition is one of the backbones of this country, and it's bad to say sometimes, but the poor and the weak are overlooked because they can't compete," Sutton said.
"It's almost like Darwin, you know, survival of the fittest," she said. "That's unfortunate, but I really think it's life."
The five blacks and three of the whites were each asked about the mission for their generation, and here's how they responded:
At the University of South Alabama: to bring people together; to have a career; to help save the environment.
At Jackson State: to help blacks know more about themselves; to enhance economic development in black communities; to unite blacks everywhere to help one another; "the liberation of my people"; to heighten black consciousness.
"Getting the young child in the street to know himself not only as black, but come to know himself as an African-American," Evans explained. "If we could all come to know ourselves as one people throughout the world . . . we could be Americans, but we could be it in the way that we want to have it."