Biography of Ross Barnett, Segregationist Governor of Mississippi

He imprisoned civil rights protesters and tried to defy federal law

Ross Barnett looking off to the side

Robert Elfstrom / Villon Films / Getty Images

Ross Barnett (January 22, 1898–November 6, 1987) served only one term as Mississippi's governor, but he remains one of the state's most well-known chief executives due in large part to his willingness to oppose civil rights efforts by imprisoning protesters, defying federal law, inciting insurrection, and functioning as a mouthpiece for the Mississippi white supremacist movement. Barnett had always been in favor of segregation and states rights and was also easily influenced by powerful White citizens who believed Mississippi, not the U.S. government, should be allowed to decide whether or not to uphold segregation. He colluded with the Citizens' Council to formally resist integration laws in direct opposition to the federal government, and this is how he is remembered today.

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 man, 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., Virginia Branum, and Ouida Atkins
  • 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 Life and Education

Barnett was born on January 22, 1898, in Standing Pine, Mississippi, the youngest of 10 children to 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.

Ross Barnett holds papers and prepares to speak into microphone before a room full of people
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Early Politics

Barnett's older brother Bert 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 the 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 Citizens' Council, a committee determined to "preserve racial integrity," with state money that year, under the auspices of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission.

Despite the jingle used by his supporters during his years as governor ("Ross is standing like Gibraltar; / he will never falter"), Barnett was, in reality, known for being indecisive in the early years of his political career. But chief of the Citizens' Council Bill Simmons had a hold on Barnett and himself was a powerful man in Mississippi. Simmons counseled Barnett on many things, including race relations. He advised Barnett to stand firm in resisting forced integration laws from the federal government, claiming that this was within a state's constitutional rights. Barnett, wanting the people of Mississippi on his side, did just that.

Governor Ross Barnett sitting with his hands folded on his desk in his office
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Meredith Crisis

In 1962, the governor tried to prevent the enrollment of James Meredith, a Black man, at the University of Mississippi. On Sept. 10 of that year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the university must admit Meredith as a student. On Sept. 26, Barnett defied this order and sent state troopers to prevent Meredith from entering the campus and control the growing crowd. Riots erupted over Meredith's pending enrollment. White segregationists could be seen expressing their outrage with violence and threats and resisting the police.

Publicly, Barnett refused to cooperate with the federal government and was praised by Mississippians for his courage. Privately, Barnett and President John F. Kennedy corresponded to reach an agreement about how to proceed. Both men needed to gain control of the situation, as two people had been killed and many more hurt in the riots. Kennedy wanted to make sure no one else died and Barnett wanted to make sure his constituents didn't turn against him. In the end, Barnett agreed to have Meredith flown in quickly before he was originally scheduled to arrive in an effort to bypass a gathering militia of armed protestors.

At Barnett's suggestion, President Kennedy ordered U.S. marshals to Mississippi to ensure Meredith's safety and allow him to enter the school on September 30. Barnett, though he had intended to convince the president to let him have his way, was in no position to bargain further with Kennedy, and Meredith became the first Black student at the school known as Ole' Miss. Barnett was charged with civil contempt but these charges were later dropped and he faced no penalties nor jail time. He left office at the end of his term in 1964.

James Meredith escorted by several White police officers
James Meredith can be seen escorted away from Mississippi Capitol Building after Gov. Ross Barnett rejected his application to the University of Mississippi personally. Bettmann / Getty Images

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, his administration is credited with several significant economic accomplishments, writes David G. Sansing on Mississippi History Now. Sansing notes of Barnett's term: "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."

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 integration of the University of Mississippi that began with the admittance of Meredith that will likely forever be most closely linked to Barnett's legacy.

Despite trying desperately to conceal his secretive dealings with the president during the Meredith crisis, word got out and the people wanted answers. Those who supported Barnett wanted proof that he had not done what he was accused of and was the firm segregationist they believed him to be and those who opposed him wanted to give voters a reason to mistrust and therefore not reelect him. Details about the governor's private correspondence with the president and attorney general ultimately came from none other than the former U.S. Attorney General himself, Robert Kennedy. 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 1966. His speech, which answered many questions Americans had at the time about the Governor's involvement in the event, was profoundly well-received despite the number of audience members who opposed him as a politician. After providing multiple examples of Barnett's unseen role in the crisis and cracking jokes about the situation, Kennedy received a standing ovation.

Historian Bill Doyle, author of An 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.'"

Additional References