Ross Barnett, Mississippi Governer: Biography

Ross Barnett
Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films/Getty Images

Born: January 22, 1898 in Standing Pine, Mississippi.

Died: November 6, 1987 in Jackson, Mississippi.

Historical Significance

Although he only served one term, Ross Barnett remains the most famous governor in Mississippi state history 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, a cowardly man—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.

In His Own Words

"I speak to you now in the moment of our greatest crisis since the War Between the States … The day of reckoning has been delayed as long as possible. It is now upon us. This is the day, and this is the hour … 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." — from a speech broadcast on September 13, 1962, in which Barnett attempted to incite insurrection in order to prevent the enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi.

Telephone Conversation Between Barnett and President John F. Kennedy, 9/13/62

Kennedy: "I know your feeling about the law of Mississippi and the fact that you don't want to carry out that court order. What we really want to have from you, though, is some understanding about whether the state police will maintain law and order. We understand your feeling about the court order and your disagreement with it. But what we're concerned about is how much violence there's going to be and what kind of action we'll have to take to prevent it. And I'd like to get assurances from you that the state police will take positive action to maintain law and order. Then we'll know what we have to do."

Barnett: "They'll take positive action, Mr. President, to maintain law and order as best we can."

Barnett: "They'll absolutely be unarmed."

Kennedy: "Right."

Barnett: "Not a one of them will be armed."

Kennedy: "Well, the problem is, well, what can they do to maintain law and order and prevent the gathering of a mob and action taken by the mob? What can they do? Can they stop that?"

Barnett: "Well, they'll do their best to. They'll do everything in their power to stop it."


Graduates from the University of Mississippi Law School.
Elected president of the Mississippi Bar Association.
Runs unsuccessfully for governor of Mississippi.
Runs unsuccessfully for governor of Mississippi.
Elected governor of Mississippi on a white separatist platform.
Orders the arrest and detention of approximately 300 Freedom Riders when they arrive in Jackson, Mississippi.

Begins secretly funding the White Citizen's Council with state money, under the auspices of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.
Uses illegal means in an attempt to prevent the enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi, but concedes immediately when federal marshals threaten to arrest him.
Decides not to seek re-election as governor. His term expires the following January.
During the trial of Mississippi NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers' murderer, Byron de la Beckwith, Barnett interrupts 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 runs for governor a fourth and final time but loses.
Barnett surprises many by riding in a Jackson parade commemorating the life and work of Medgar Evers.
Barnett dies.