Ross Barnett

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Ross Barnett
53rd Governor of Mississippi
In office
January 19, 1960 – January 21, 1964
LieutenantPaul B. Johnson Jr.
Preceded byJames P. Coleman
Succeeded byPaul B. Johnson Jr.
Personal details
Ross Robert Barnett

(1898-01-22)January 22, 1898
Standing Pine, Mississippi, U.S.
DiedNovember 6, 1987(1987-11-06) (aged 89)
Jackson, Mississippi, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
SpouseMary Pearl Crawford (m. 1929)
Alma materMississippi College (AB)
University of Mississippi (LLB)
Military service
Allegiance United States
Branch/service United States Army
Battles/warsWorld War I

Ross Robert Barnett (January 22, 1898 – November 6, 1987) was an American politician, 53rd governor of Mississippi from 1960 to 1964. He was a Southern Democrat who supported racial segregation.

Early life[edit]

Background and learning[edit]

Born in Standing Pine in Leake County, Mississippi, Barnett was the youngest of ten children of John William Barnett, a Confederate veteran, and the former Virginia Ann Chadwick.[1][2]

He served in the United States Army during World War I, then worked in jobs while earning an undergraduate degree from Mississippi College in Clinton in 1922. Four years later, he followed that with an LL.B. from the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) at Oxford, where he gave courses to freshmen.[3]

In order to save money, he worked as schoolhouse janitor, barber, brass band organizer, and door-to-door salesman for WearEver aluminum products.[4]

Legal career[edit]

His first legal case was, while he was still at Ole Miss, over a replevin case about a cow, which he won and for which he received a $2.50 fee; his first real case as a lawyer was about representing a Black woman suing her ex-husband over the value of a sidesaddle, losing this case in the justice court but winning it in the county court, earning himself $7.50.[3][4]

After trying and failing to join an existing law firm, he rented space near Charles Crisler's office, and soon founded his own law firm; over the next quarter century, Barnett became one of the state's most successful trial lawyers, earning more than $100,000 a year with specialty in damage suits against corporations. Most of his clients were poor Whites and Blacks, and tales were told about an elderly black man was injured in a traffic accident and asking for "Doctor Ross Barnett" when asked which doctor to call.[4][5]

Ole Miss Law School Dean Robert Farley described him as such : "He was not a brilliant lawyer, He was a brilliant jury manipulator, but I don't think anybody ever accused Ross of knowing much law".[4]

He often donated his skills to causes and served as president of the Mississippi Bar Association for two years beginning in 1943.[6]

Personal life[edit]

In 1929, he married Mary Pearl Crawford, a school teacher; the couple had two daughters and a son.

Political life[edit]

First steps[edit]

Using the income derived from his legal fees, Barnett sought to enter politics, unsuccessfully running twice in the Democratic primary for Governor of Mississippi, in 1951 and 1955. At the time, Mississippi was a one-party state dominated by the Democrats, and the Democratic primary was the only meaningful contest.

On his third try in 1959, he won the nomination, in a campaign which mostly ran on segregation, publishing the brochure "Dynamic Leadership – To Keep Segregation and Improve Our Standard of Living"[7][8] and making statements such as "The Negro is different because God made him different to punish him. His forehead slants back. His nose is different. His lips are different, and his color is sure different."[2][9] His song "Roll with Ross," whose tune was later used for the state anthem "Go, Mississippi", contained the following:[10][11][12][13]

Roll with Ross, roll with Ross, he's his own boss
For segregation, one hundred percent
He's not a moderate like some of the gents
He'll fight integration with forceful intent.

No Republican even filed, and Barnett was unopposed in the November general election. His inauguration was on January 19, 1960. During his term in office, he celebrated the centennial of the American Civil War. Barnett traveled to Civil War sites to pay homage to fallen "Sons of Mississippi".

In 1960, Barnett Ran in the Democratic Party presidential primaries as a favorite son candidate. He ran to protest leading candidate John Kennedy's support of the civil rights movement, but lost. Following this, Barnett attempted to establish a third-party movement akin to the Dixiecrat movement of 1948. He aimed to counter the civil rights plank adopted by the Democratic National Convention in 1960, which he found repulsive. However, his efforts to garner support from fellow southern governors failed. Consequently, Barnett proposed a group of uncommitted Democratic electors, who triumphed over the Mississippi slate committed to endorsing Kennedy in the November elections. Ultimately, these electors allocated the state's eight electoral votes to Senator Harry F. Byrd.[14]


During his first months as governor, the state legislature saw the introduction of 24 new bills advocating segregation, and directives were issued to circuit clerks, instructing them to withhold voter registration data from the Justice Department. In his capacity as the chairman of the State Sovereignty Commission, Barnett financially supported the Mississippi Association of Citizens Councils, granting them more than $100,000 in state grants 1962.[15] Barnett, a staunch segregationist, became known for his tumultuous clashes with the civil rights movement which dominated his term.

Barnett arranged for the arrest of Freedom Riders in 1961 and then imprisoned them at Parchman Farm. While their offenses were minor, the Freedom Riders were strip-searched, had beds taken away, and were humiliated and brutalized in the prison. Barnett reportedly said to the guards "Break their spirits, not their bones".[16][17][18]

While this approach gained approval in the state, it was done in part to blunt the criticism that he was receiving for multiple reasons: failing to follow through with promises of jobs for office-seekers; filling those jobs with acquaintances, and attempting to wrest control of state agencies from the legislature.[9] Barnett was a member of the white supremacist Citizens' Councils movement.[19]

In 1962, the state agency in charge of universities and colleges, the Institutions of Higher Learning, appointed Barnett the registrar in order to oppose James Meredith's efforts to desegregate Barnett's alma mater, the University of Mississippi. With the accreditation of the state's medical school and other universities in jeopardy due to the political interventions, the IHL board reversed their action after the riots on the campus.[20] Barnett was fined $10,000 and sentenced to jail for contempt but never paid the fine or served a day in jail.[9] This was because the charges were terminated (civil) and dismissed (criminal) by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals because of "substantial compliance with orders of the court," and "in view of changed circumstances and conditions." Only two Mississippi legislators opposed Barnett's efforts to defy the federal authorities, Joe Wroten and Karl Wiesenburg. On September 13, he said that "There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration. We will not drink from the cup of genocide."[21]

On the night before the Ole Miss riot of 1962 protesting Meredith's entry to the university, Barnett gave his sixteen-word "I Love Mississippi" speech at the University of Mississippi football game in Jackson. The Ole Miss Rebels were playing the Kentucky Wildcats. 41,000 fans cheered at the stadium waving thousands of Confederate flags. At halftime, a gigantic Confederate flag was unveiled on the field. The crowd shouted "We want Ross!". Barnett went to the field, grabbed the microphone at the 50-yard line and said to an enthusiastic crowd:

I love Mississippi! I love her people! Our customs. I love and I respect our heritage.[22][23]

Many Mississippians linked segregation to the Bible. Barnett, a Baptist Sunday school teacher, declared "The Good Lord was the original segregationist. He put the black man in Africa. ... He made us white because he wanted us white, and he intended that we should stay that way."[13][24] Barnett said that Mississippi had the largest percent of black Americans because "they love our way of life here, and that way is segregation."[25]

In 1963, Barnett tried to prevent the men's basketball team of Mississippi State University from playing an NCAA Tournament game against the racially integrated team from Loyola of Chicago. The team defied Barnett by sneaking out of the state and playing the game, which they lost to the eventual national champions.

After his term[edit]

Challenge from Republicans[edit]

Portrait of Barnett

Barnett's term as governor officially expired on January 21, 1964, with the swearing-in of his successor, the outgoing lieutenant governor, Paul B. Johnson. Barnett was known for his strong opposition to the development of the two-party system in the former Democratic stronghold of Mississippi. Along with state Democratic chairman Bidwell Adam, Barnett campaigned strongly for his state Democratic ticket, including Paul Johnson for governor to succeed Barnett and Carroll Gartin for lieutenant governor, the man that Barnett had defeated for governor four years earlier.

Johnson and Gartin faced the challenge of the Republicans Rubel Phillips and Stanford Morse, the first Republican ticket for governor and lieutenant governor to run in Mississippi in decades. Barnett urged his state's Democratic voters to "push out this Republican threat" and added that he was "fed up with these fence-riding, pussy-footing, snow-digging Yankee Republicans", a reference to northern transplants coming into Mississippi.[26]

Barnett was expected by some to run in the 1964 Democratic presidential primaries as a segregationist candidate against incumbent U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, but he did not. Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama subsequently assumed this role in part, not running openly against Johnson but rather testing his popularity in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland.[27] Barnett opposed Johnson, whom he called a "counterfeit confederate...who [mignt] someday resign from the white race" during a "Patriot's Rally Against Tyranny" on 4 July 1964,[28][29] and supported Barry Goldwater due to his vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[30]

Shortly after he left office, Barnett's looming presence was evident at the first jury trial of white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith in February 1964.[31] De La Beckwith was on trial for the murder of African American civil rights activist Medgar Evers, but an all-white jury was unable to agree on a verdict in both this and a subsequent re-trial. In the second subsequent re-trial, former Governor Ross Barnett interrupted the proceedings, while Myrlie Evers was testifying, to shake hands with Beckwith. De La Beckwith was eventually convicted at a subsequent trial three decades later, a case chronicled in the movie Ghosts of Mississippi.

Ole Miss controversy with Robert F. Kennedy[edit]

On March 18, 1966, former United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who frequently conversed by telephone with Barnett during the Meredith crisis in attempts to secure peacefully Meredith's enrollment at Ole Miss, visited the campus. In a speech before more than 6,000 students and faculty, Kennedy discussed racial reconciliation and answered questions, including those about his role in Meredith's enrollment. To much laughter from the audience members, he told of a plan in which Barnett had asked that US marshals point their guns at him while Meredith attempted to enroll so that "a picture could be taken of the event."[32]

He also drew laughter by recounting another plan where Meredith would go to Jackson to enroll while Barnett remained in Oxford "and when Meredith was registered, he (Barnett) would feign surprise." Both plans were approved by Kennedy and failed only because of the development of events.[33] When Kennedy finished his speech and question-and-answer session, he was greeted by a standing ovation.[34]

The next day Barnett bitterly attacked Kennedy's version of events:

It ill becomes a man who never tried a lawsuit in his life, but who occupied the high position of United States attorney general and who was responsible for using 30,000 troops and spent approximately six million dollars to put one unqualified student in Ole Miss to return to the scene of this crime and discuss any phase of this infamous affair. ... I say to you that Bobby Kennedy is a very sick and dangerous American. We have lots of sick Americans in this country but most of them have a long beard. Bobby Kennedy is a hypocritical, left-wing beatnik without a beard who carelessly and recklessly distorts the facts.[35]

Later life[edit]

Gov. Barnett with President William David McCain (left) of Mississippi Southern College at the signing of the bill which granted the college university status. At right is then Lieutenant Governor Paul B. Johnson, Jr., who followed Barnett as governor.

Barnett attempted a political comeback by running for governor again in 1967 but lost, finishing a distant fourth in the state primary. He then returned to the practice of law, but remained unrepentant about his past, saying, "Generally speaking, I'd do the same things again."[9] He also farmed and spoke before various groups, such as the American Legion.[1]

Barnett expressed no remorse for his role in segregation. Asked in 1982 about the Ole Miss riot, Barnett said, "'I have no regrets, no apologies to make."[36]

Ross Barnett Reservoir, located northeast of Jackson, is named in his honor. In May 2022, a petition began to be circulated to rename the reservoir after outdoors writer R. H. Cleveland.[37] In Smith County, a lake was named after him before it was renamed Lake Prentiss Walker.[38]


  1. ^ a b "Barnett Banquet Speaker As Local American Legion Post Ends Drive", Minden Press-Herald, Minden, Louisiana, November 8, 1967, p. 1
  2. ^ a b "Mississippi Mud". Time. September 7, 1959. Archived from the original on September 23, 2009.
  3. ^ a b Johnston, Erle (1980). I Rolled with Ross: A Political Portrait. Moran. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-86518-017-8.
  4. ^ a b c d Doyle, William (February 5, 2002). An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-385-50487-4.
  5. ^ Meredith, James (August 7, 2012). A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4516-7474-3.
  6. ^ Joseph, Peter (1973). Good Times. p. 191.
  7. ^ Luckett, Robert E. (August 24, 2015). Joe T. Patterson and the White South's Dilemma: Evolving Resistance to Black Advancement. Univ. Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-1-4968-0270-5.
  8. ^ Blankenhorn, David (May 24, 2016). "In Defense of the Practical Politician". The American Interest. Retrieved March 17, 2020.
  9. ^ a b c d "Ross Barnett, Segregationist, Dies; Governor of Mississippi in 1960s". The New York Times. November 7, 1987.
  10. ^ Sez, Col Reb (December 10, 2012). "ColRebSez: If states can't choose their own license plates, then there may be no right to choose state songs, either". ColRebSez. Retrieved October 11, 2017.
  11. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Roll with Ross". Brian Perry via Youtube. Retrieved January 7, 2018.
  12. ^ Johnston, Erle (1990). Mississippi's Defiant Years, 1953-1973: An Interpretive Documentary with Personal Experiences. Lake Harbor Publishers. p. 84. ISBN 9789991746159.
  13. ^ a b Emery, Kathy; Gold, Linda Reid; Braselmann, Sylvia (2008). Lessons from Freedom Summer: Ordinary People Building Extraordinary Movements. Common Courage Press. p. 185. ISBN 978-1-56751-388-2.
  14. ^ Richard Dean Burns, and Joseph M. Siracusa, Historical Dictionary of the Kennedy-Johnson Era (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) p. 57–59.
  15. ^ Burns, and Siracusa, Historical Dictionary of the Kennedy-Johnson Era (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) p. 57.
  16. ^ 'Freedom Riders Documentary, NJTV'
  17. ^ Oshinsky, David M. (1997). Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. Free Press. p. 235.
  18. ^ "Secret Histories | Inside "Parchman" - Crave Online". Mandatory. November 3, 2016. Retrieved March 17, 2020.
  19. ^ Sitton, Claude (June 13, 1963). "N.A.A.C.P. Leader Slain in Jackson; Protests Mount". New York Times. reprinted in Carson, Clayborne; Garrow, David J.; Kovach, Bill (2003). Reporting Civil Rights: American journalism, 1941–1963. Library of America. pp. 831–835. ISBN 9781931082280. Retrieved September 14, 2011.
  20. ^ Quinn, Janis (2005). Promises kept: the University of Mississippi Medical Center. (1st ed) Jackson: University of Mississippi Medical Center. p.83. ISBN 1-57806-805-3
  21. ^ Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the Congress. Vol. 108. U.S. Government Printing Office. 1962. pp. 19737–19738.
  22. ^ Bryant 2006, 66.
  23. ^ "OTL: Ghosts of Mississippi". ESPN. February 10, 2009. Retrieved October 11, 2017.
  24. ^ Memphis Commercial Appeal, September 12, 1963
  25. ^ Jackson Clarion-Ledger, September 25, 1963; James W. Silver, Mississippi: The Closed Society (New York, 1966), pp. 273-274
  26. ^ Hattiesburg American, October 16, 1963; Time magazine, October 25, 1963, p. 29
  27. ^ Jody Carlson, George C. Wallace and the Politics of Powerlessness: The Wallace Campaigns for the Presidency, 1964–1976, Transaction Publishers, 1981, ISBN 978-0-87855-344-0, ISBN 978-0-87855-344-0
  28. ^ May, Gary (May 11, 2005). The Informant: The FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Murder of Viola Luzzo. Yale University Press. p. 111. ISBN 978-0-300-12999-1.
  29. ^ Rauh, Joseph L. (1964). Brief submitted by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (PDF). p. 25. On the 4th of July of this year he termed President Johnson a "counterfeit confederate who resigned from the South and may one day soon resign from the white race as well..." A few days later he said, "I would vote for Senator Goldwater before I would vote for Lyndon Johnson, a counterfeit confederate." And on July 22nd the Clarion-Ledger reported from Houston, Texas : "Calling Lyndon Johnson 'a counterfeit confederate,' Barnett said 'he'll need more than an 87-vote landslide in Texas' to win the November election."
  30. ^ "Barnett For Goldwater". The New York Times. September 13, 1964. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved June 18, 2023. "The American people have a choice to vote either for a candidate for President of the United States who fanatically advances and is ardently supporting the present trend," Mr. Barnett said, "or another candidate for President who is opposed to the present trend. "I am going to vote for the conservative — Senator Barry Goldwater — who had the courage to vote against the civil rights bill.".
  31. ^ "Hung Jury". Time. February 14, 1964. Archived from the original on September 23, 2009.
  32. ^ Bryant 2006, 63.
  33. ^ Bryant 2006, 63., 66.
  34. ^ "Students Give Kennedy Very Cordial Reception", Jackson, Miss. Clarion-Ledger, March 19, 1966, p. 1, 8.
  35. ^ "Barnett Attacks Kennedy's Claims", Jackson, Miss. Clarion-Ledger, March 20, 1966, p. 1, 14A.
  36. ^ Stuart, Reginald (October 3, 1982). "20 YEARS AFTER ADMITTING MEREDITH, OLE MISS MERGES ITS OLD AND NEW IMAGES". The New York Times. Retrieved April 10, 2019.
  37. ^ Broom, Brian (May 18, 2022). "Ross Barnett Reservoir: Could the name be changed to R.H. Cleveland Reservoir?". The Clarion-Ledger. Retrieved May 20, 2022.
  38. ^ Lake Ross Barnett in Smith County, MS Retrieved 2017-05-22.

Further reading[edit]

  • Doyle, William. An American Insurrection: James Meredith and the Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962 (Anchor, 2003). online
  • Goudsouzian, Aram. Man on a Mission: James Meredith and the Battle of Ole Miss (University of Arkansas Press, 2022) online.
  • Hollingsworth, Bradley S. "About an Oath: The Mississippi National Guard at the Battle of Ole Miss" (US Army School for Advanced Military Studies, 2020) online.
  • Irons, Jenny. Reconstituting whiteness: The Mississippi state sovereignty commission (Vanderbilt University Press, 2010) online.
  • King, Desmond, and Robert C. Lieberman. " 'The Latter-Day General Grant': Forceful Federal Power and Civil Rights." Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics 6.3 (2021): 529–564. online
  • Watkins, James H. " 'Returning to Mississippi by Choice' Autobiographical Self-Location and the Performance of Black Masculinity in James Meredith's Three Years in Mississippi." The Mississippi Quarterly 69.2 (2016): 253–276. online

External links[edit]

Party political offices
Preceded by Democratic nominee for Governor of Mississippi
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by Governor of Mississippi
Succeeded by