Biography of Ross Barnett, Segregationist Governor of Mississippi

He imprisoned civil rights protesters and tried to defy federal law

Ross Barnett

Robert Elfstrom / Villon Films / Getty Images

Ross Barnett (January 22, 1898–November 6, 1987) served one term as Mississippi's governor, but he remains as one of the state's most well-known chief executives due in large part to his willingness to imprison civil rights protesters, defy federal law, incite insurrection, and function as a mouthpiece for the Mississippi white supremacist movement.

Despite the jingle used by his supporters during his anti-integration years ("Ross is standing like Gibraltar; / he will never falter"), Barnett was, in reality, always willing to harm others to advance his own political interests when it was safe to do so, but surprisingly docile and submissive when the possibility emerged that he might himself have to spend time in prison.

Fast Facts: Ross Barnett

  • Known For: 53rd governor of Mississippi who clashed with civil rights activists and tried to bar James Meredith, an African-American, from enrolling at the University of Mississippi
  • Born: January 22, 1898, in Standing Pine, Mississippi
  • Parents: John William, Virginia Ann Chadwick Barnett
  • Died: November 6, 1987, in Jackson, Mississippi
  • Education: Mississippi College (graduated, 1922), Mississippi Law School (LLB, 1929)
  • Awards and Honors: Mississippi Bar Association president (elected 1943)
  • Spouse: Pearl Crawford (m. 1929–1982)
  • Children: Ross Barnett Jr., two daughters
  • Notable Quote: "I have said in every county in Mississippi that no school in our state will be integrated while I am your governor. I repeat to you tonight: no school in our state will be integrated while I am your governor. There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration. We will not drink from the cup of genocide."

Early Years and Education

Barnett was born on January 22, 1898, in Standing Pine, Mississippi, the youngest of 10 children of John William Barnett, a Confederate veteran, and Virginia Ann Chadwick. Barnett served in the U.S. Army during World War I. He then worked a series of odd jobs while attending Mississippi College in Clinton before earning a degree from the school in 1922. He later attended the University of Mississippi Law School and graduated with an LLB in 1929, the same year he married schoolteacher Mary Pearl Crawford. They eventually had two daughters and a son.

Law Career

Barnett started his law career with relatively minor cases. "I represented a man in a replevin case for a cow and actually won it," he told the University of Southern Mississippi's Center for Oral History & Cultural Heritage. "He paid me $2.50." ("Replevin" refers to a legal action whereby a person seeks to have his property returned to him.) In his second case, Barnett represented a woman suing for the cost of a side saddle ($12.50), which had been taken by her ex-husband. He lost that case.

Despite this early setback, during the course of the next quarter-century, Barnett became one of the state's most successful trial lawyers, earning more than $100,000 per year, funds that would later help him launch his political career. In 1943, Barnett was elected president of the Mississippi Bar Association and served in that post until 1944.

Early Politics

Barnett's older brother Bert actually sparked Ross Barnett's interest in politics. Bert Barnett was twice elected to the position of chancery clerk of Leake County, Mississippi. He then successfully ran for a state senate seat representing Leake and Neshoba counties. Ross Barnett recalled the experience years later: "I got to liking politics pretty well, following him around—helping him in his campaigns."

Unlike his brother, Barnett never ran for any state or local offices. But with the encouragement of friends and former classmates—and after decades of practicing law and a successful stint overseeing the state's bar association—Barnett ran, unsuccessfully, for governor of Mississippi in 1951 and 1955. The third time was a charm, though, and Barnett was elected governor of the state after running on a white separatist platform in 1959.

Governorship

Barnett's single term as governor was marked by conflicts with civil rights activists who protested in the state. In 1961, he ordered the arrest and detention of approximately 300 Freedom Riders when they arrived in Jackson, Mississippi. He also began secretly funding the White Citizen's Council with state money that year, under the auspices of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.

Meredith Crisis

In 1962, Barnett tried to prevent the enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. On September 10 of that year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the university must admit Meredith, an African-American, as a student. On. Sept. 26, Barnett ordered state troopers to prevent Meredith from entering the campus. Between Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, riots erupted over Meredith's pending enrollment.

President John F. Kennedy ordered U.S. marshals to Mississippi to ensure Meredith's safety and allow him to enter the school. Barnett relented on Oct. 1 after the marshals threatened to arrest him, and Meredith became a student at the school known as Ole' Miss. Barnett left office at the end of his term in 1964.

Later Years and Death

Barnett resumed his law practice after leaving office but stayed active in state politics. During the 1964 trial of Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers' murderer Byron de la Beckwith, Barnett interrupted the testimony of Evers' widow to shake Beckwith's hand in solidarity, eliminating whatever slim chance there might have been that jurors would have convicted Beckwith. (Beckwith was finally convicted in 1994.)

Barnett ran for governor a fourth and final time in 1967 but lost. Years later, in 1983, Barnett surprised many by riding in a Jackson parade commemorating the life and work of Evers. Barnett died on Nov. 6, 1987, in Jackson, Mississippi.

Legacy

Although Barnett is most remembered for the Meredith crisis, there were several significant economic developments during his administration, David G. Sansing writes on Mississippi History Now. Sansing notes: "A series of amendments to the state’s workmen’s compensation law and the enactment of a 'right to work law,' made Mississippi more attractive to outside industry" during Barnett's term.

Additionally, the state added more than 40,000 new jobs during his four years as governor, which saw the construction of industrial parks throughout the state and the establishment of a Youth Affairs Department under the Agricultural and Industrial Board.

But it is the Meredith controversy that will likely forever be most closely linked to Barnett's legacy. Indeed, former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who talked by phone more than a dozen times with Barnett before and during the crisis, drew a crowd of 6,000 students and faculty when he gave a speech at The University of Mississippi in 1996. After poking fun at Barnett's response at the time, Kennedy received a standing ovation.

Historian Bill Doyle, the author of "American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962," says that Barnett knew integration was inevitable but needed a way to let Meredith enroll in Ole' Miss without losing face with his white, pro-segregation supporters. Doyle said: "Ross Barnett desperately wanted the Kennedys to flood Mississippi with combat troops because that's the only way Ross Barnett could tell his white segregationist backers, 'Hey I did everything I could, I fought them, but to prevent bloodshed, in the end, I made a deal.'"

Sources