Commentary by Dick Gentry
Governor Ross Barnett and James Meredith were the leading characters in the insurrection at Ole Miss in 1962 when Meredith was enrolling at the all-white university.
Meredith told me there were only two people there who knew it was an “inside joke.” Only the governor and I knew it was a game, he said. But, was it really an inside joke?
My new book (UNDER FIRE AT OLE MISS, Amazon.com) and some of my comments on this prominent website have drawn some disapproval. Of course they have. I have some very strong opinions about the riot of 1962. I was there.
A reviewer recently commented about my book, “The major difference in the Meredith-Ole Miss story (UNDER FIRE AT OLE MISS) this time is that Mississippi authorities are ‘arrayed behind him and not against him. Many today agonize to recall that the state’s governor back then precipitated a mini-Civil War in a desperate attempt to bar one black student from enrolling in the all-white university’.” Sorry, I don’t understand that observation.
The reviewer may have been talking about James Meredith’s quirky comment to me in my interview with him several years ago, “Only two people knew this was a game; me and Ross Barnett.”
I cannot possibly analyze the innuendo behind that comment in this limited space. You need to read the book for that. But I believe I can help you understand Governor Ross Barnett a mite better.
Casting for a movie anti-hero in Meredith’s assault on Mississippi needs a star that’s larger than life—a John Goodman or the late Broderick Crawford—to portray Ross Barnett. Ross, almost 90, died in 1987. Ross was an imposing man: a States Right Democrat, a robust leader for segregationists, political leader and, often times, a brilliant thinker–albeit with quirks.
Aside from the segregation issue, he was perhaps much like his son Ross Barnett Jr., 79, an attorney in Jackson. Like his father, he represents a majority of black clients. Trying to fathom the riddle of the relationship between the two most important characters in the Ole Miss saga for my book, I believed the son was probably the best shot. So, I quizzed him in the summer of 2012 in his office.
He was the busiest man I have ever interviewed and he told me the pace continues night and day. We sat it his oak lined office at a huge table where he immediately answered every cell phone call he received. But I enjoyed the interruptions: “This is Ross. Who is this? I’m very busy right now. I’m in an interview. Call me tomorrow. What do you need?”
“I’ve met Meredith two or three times, (including) this last year in this very room. We get along and there’s no ill will. And he claimed my daddy saved his life.”
I asked him what that meant and he said that Meredith had discovered the president was “in on it” too, and knew (as everyone did) Kennedy and Barnett had talked.
What did Meredith mean by that just a game comment? Barnett said, “I really don’t know. If they knew what all was going to happen, they didn’t tell me. I never heard my dad tell me what the outcome was going to be, or after the outcome that he knew that was the way it was going to be. Daddy did everything he could do to deny him admission. Good, bad or indifferent, that’s the cold facts of it.” The two never had a private meeting prior to the insurrection, he said.
Meredith had also told me that any time a black person in Mississippi got into trouble he wanted to call Ross Barnett.
“That’s true; the answer is ‘yes’,” Barnett said.
Why then, when he represented blacks and whites before integration, did he lead the charge to keep Meredith away from Ole Miss?
“Because that was his platform!” he said. “Segregation was the No. 1 plank of his party in 1959, and he meant every word of it. Just the fact that he was for segregation didn’t mean that he believed blacks should be over here and whites should be over there. But he was not for interracial marriage.”
Did Ross Barnett have regrets about his Ole Miss action?
“No, never. About 1975, he told me he never regretted anything he ever did in his life.”
I asked why blacks still chose Ross Barnett to defend them following the Ole Miss riot.
“I’ve asked them,” he said. “They believed he would fight as hard for them as he did to keep Meredith out of Ole Miss. White people don’t think like that. If white people don’t like you for some reason, they don’t like you or your family for any reason.
“Blacks are different. They let every tub stand on its own bottom. Blacks tell me they had rather live in the South than the North. Up North, whites shake your hand, smile at you, and tell you they like you, but they won’t lend you any money and they won’t feed you.
“Down South they’ll loan you money—white folks will—and they will not let you go hungry. And if they don’t like you they’ll tell you to your face.”
Barnett Jr. was an officer in the Mississippi National Guard unit in Jackson when the riot broke out. What was he thinking when the Guard was federalized, since the militia had been called into action along with regular Army units.
“As far as I know, no one, nowhere, ever criticized the performance of the Mississippi National Guard. When the order came down, they went. If they were forced to open fire, I’m afraid they would have. They took an oath to defend the Constitution,” he said.
I ask him about Meredith’s legacy.
“They will remember that first night. He started the integration process in Mississippi and other states. It took a lot of courage. There is a lot of admiration from black folks for doing this. There is thankfulness. They are going to remember him in that context. I know he’s had a somewhat rocky life since then, but he did what he did by himself and changed the way America thinks.”
Obviously, considering what he accomplished, Ross Barnett possessed a powerful personality and intense personal drive.
It didn’t start out that way. Ross Barnett had 10 months of the 10th, 11th and 12th grade, given to him by his sister who taught in Meridian, Mississippi, his son said. He almost settled there, which was larger at the time than Jackson. In 1922, after flunking freshman English, he graduated from Mississippi College, according to his son.
In 1929, he received his law degree from Ole Miss. By 1943, he was president of the Mississippi Bar Association. He became one of the most successful trial lawyers in the state.
“Your father sent the Mississippi Highway Patrol to Oxford, but then they left.” That question has haunted the governor’s accusers and apologists alike about. Did he order the highway patrol to abandon the campus during the most critical time of the insurrection?
Ross Jr. thought for a moment. It was the only question that appeared to stump him: “I don’t know; never asked him about it.”
Many, including yours truly, have thought the Highway Patrol’s pullback was the biggest mistake of the entire night. It became so significant that the Mississippi Department of Archives released a statement on October 6, 1962:
“Governor Barnett at no time Sunday or Sunday night gave instructions for the Highway Patrol or any parts of its force to be pulled out of either the University or Oxford…His instructions were for them to remain on the scene and do everything possible to maintain law and order.”
In spite of the denials, it was a critical decision by someone.
“Dad knew people and human nature, but you would be surprised at some of things he did NOT know—like how to turn on the air conditioner in his car. If you were riding with him on July 4 and blazing hot air was coming out of the heater and you asked him ‘turn on the air, Ross,’ he would reply, ‘You turn it on!’ He didn’t know how, and dust would come flying out.
“And he didn’t even know what a pizza was when he was 80.”
Dick Gentry was the Summer Editor of The Daily Mississippian prior to the 1962 riot at Ole Miss. He left Ole Miss shortly after and later graduated with a degree in journalism and business from Eastern Washington University in Spokane, where he was a writer for the Spokane Daily Chronicle. His career also includes editor and publisher of The Caymanian in The Cayman Islands; executive editor of Hawaii Business Magazine; editor of Atlanta Business Chronicle and executive editor of the Birmingham Business Journal. His first job after leaving Ole Miss was sports editor of the Artesia (N.M.) Daily press, where he eventually became editor. He lives in a small mountain town about 50 miles north of Atlanta with his wife and fellow traveler of 54 years, Martha. UNDER FIRE AT OLE MISS is his second book about a Mississippian’s unusual career. His first is AT THE FOOT OF THE SOUTHERN CROSS, the story of a naïve reporter who became editor and publisher of the only newspaper in The Cayman Islands during the rise of the offshore tax-haven industry. Both are available at Amazon.com.