Changing of the Era in Mississippi …A Southern Tragedy

Changing of the Era in Mississippi
…A Southern Tragedy
By Ed Williams

Vol. 10, No. 3, 1988, p. 10

I remember Ross Barnett as a wonderful phrase-maker. In those more trusting days, nobody thought that he might just be good at delivering phrases made by witty writers, as John Kennedy was then and Ronald Reagan is now.

Barnett was governor of Mississippi when I was a student at Ole Miss in the early 1960s. I can see him now, standing on tiptoes behind a lectern, head back, right arm stretched skyward, poised to swoop like a diving hawk as he pounded home his point. Even after he was out of office, he continued to give speeches around the state, talking about Teddy Kennedy (“that grrrrrreat driver, that grrrrrreat swimmer”) or the meddlesome federal government.

I still get a lot of laughs telling stories about ol’ Ross. There was the time, for instance, when some Parchman prison trustys assigned as servants at the governor’s mansion took off to Arkansas on an unauthorized trip that they obviously hoped would be one-way. Maybe they took the governor’s silver with them; I can’t recall.

Ross’s comment: “If you can’t trust a trusty, who can you trust?”

Then there was the time Ross had flown to make a campaign speech in the Delta. He got out of the small plane and walked into the propeller, which was, thank heavens, rotating slowly. When he came to in the hospital, Ross said he had learned that “the front end of an airplane is like the back end of a mule”–that is, you’ve got to watch both of them.

The islands of Quemoy and Matsu, off the China coast, figured in one of the debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential campaign. The islands were controlled by the Chinese anti-communists in exile on Taiwan, and the mainland Chinese bombarded them during the late ’50s and occasionally in 1960.

Statehouse reporters asked ol’ Ross what he would do about Quemoy and Matsu. “I’d appoint ’em to the Game and Fish Commission,” he said.

Ross Barnett died recently at the age of 89. He had been a trial lawyer and a successful one, winning huge (for a poor state) verdicts in damage suits against power companies and other opponents with deep pockets. A friend of mine concluded that Barnett, the shrewd lawyer, had played the dumb ol’ country boy before so many juries that he had finally become a dumb ol’ country boy.

I don’t know whether that was true, but I know that when he had a chance to lead Mississippi into a better future he chose instead to embrace the bitter past.

People can sit around all night telling Ross Barnett stories and leave the impression that he was at worst a goodhearted, amiable buffoon, but that’s only part of the story. He was also a committed racist. He believed that blacks were inferior, that segregation was the will of God as well as the law of Mississippi. His rabble-rousing resistance to the idea that the Constitution applied in Mississippi provoked a bloody insurrection on the Ole Miss campus when federal officials tried to enroll James Meredith. Two people died in the riot. The next day, federal troops occupied the campus to end what I have always considered the last battle of the Civil War.

Barnett was a pleasant companion and in some ways a good and caring man. But he was an eager servant of the force that for centuries poisoned his region–racism.

Perhaps it seems unfair to blame political leaders such as Barnett, Orval Faubus of Arkansas and George Wallace of Alabama for reflecting the passions and prejudices of their time. To me, that is no defense. One measurement of excellence in political leaders is how well they grasp the important opportunities and help shape their times.

Remember, Ross Barnett was governor of Mississippi at the same time Terry Sanford was governor of North Carolina. The difference in the two men says a lot about the differences in the two states.

Ed Williams is editor of the Charlotte Observer‘s editorial pages, from which this article is reprinted.