Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Beyond Barton v. Barnett

Editor’s Note:

Ole Miss alumni, faculty and staff can be valuable resources. Anyone who knew Barton, a student from 1958-1962, or anyone who would like to discuss the atmosphere on campus or in the state during that time is encouraged to contact Owen at 770-265-2575 or at jennifer.bryon.owen@gmail.com.

The life—and death—of a casualty of Mississippi’s segregationist era is the subject of a book now being researched.

Barton, circa 1959
Barton, circa 1959

Later described by a writer as a “farm boy from Pontotoc County,” Bill Barton, class of 1962, was a 20-year-old journalism student when he drew the ire of Gov. Ross Barnett and other segregationist leaders in Mississippi’s state government.

It was the summer of 1960, Barton was planning to run for editor of The Mississippian when he returned to campus that fall, but first he would use the summer break to hone his skills. He worked as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal where he was assigned to cover sit-ins at Atlanta’s lunch counters, the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement there.

A paid student informant also worked at The Atlanta Journal. With the informant’s reports, Georgia’s Bureau of Investigation reported to the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission several charges that were summed up with “Barton is very dangerous.” He was accused of having participated in the sit-ins; of being a protégé of Ralph McGill, who was actually editor of the Atlanta Constitution but was considered a liberal; and of being close friends with another liberal, P.D. East, editor of the Petal (Miss.) newspaper. Later reports also said Barton was a member of the NAACP, specifically citing that he was a “left-winger.”

Barton lost the popular election for editor and blamed this defeat on the harassment of Gov. Barnett, the White Citizens’ Council and the Sovereignty Commission. He tried, unsuccessfully, to clear his name and voluntarily took a lie detector test, which he passed. Ultimately, he sued Ross Barnett and several other prominent Citizens’ Council members saying that their accusations cost him the election, embarrassed and humiliated him, and made working in his home state impossible.

Literally blocked from working on a Mississippi newspaper, he went to work for The Associated Press, an assignment that eventually sent him to Saigon, reporting on the Viet Nam war. A jeep in which he was riding drew fire as it ran through a military check point one night. Barton was wounded severely in the face and head. He lived and returned home to Pontotoc, unable to work. After a few years, his car—with Barton trapped inside—was found in a pond after having been missing for a week. It was deemed an accident. He was 32-years-old.

Barton’s story with segregationist Mississippi has appeared in bits and pieces in numerous writings about the civil rights era but nothing has been written about the rest of his short life.

Now another Ole Miss journalism graduate, Jennifer Bryon Owen, class of 1969, is researching biography that will attempt to bring the many facets of Barton’s story together into one place and perhaps answer lingering questions.

“Bill is a casualty of segregation’s horrors, and he deserves to have the entirety of his story told,” said Owen. “His story has fascinated me for years,” Owen said. “As I’ve started talking with people who knew him, I’ve learned that people want to talk about Bill.”

 

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