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photo: NARA

The president is a powerful man, and the phone can be a powerful tool in his hands. But in September, 1962 John F. Kennedy faced the limits of this power when the Governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, blocked a black man from enrolling at the University of Mississippi.

In a series of telephone calls in late September 1962 President Kennedy tried to convince Governor Barnett to let James Meredith enter the campus to register for classes. The United States Supreme Court had ordered that Meredith be admitted to the university, but the Governor refused to obey. If Kennedy couldn't sway Barnett with words, he would have to use federal troops, a move that could provoke violence and cost Kennedy precious votes in the South.

The stand-off had a Civil War flavor. An old-style Southern Democrat, Ross Barnett declared that Mississippi segregation laws trumped Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. President Kennedy was also a Democrat, but a young, bred-in-the-bone Yankee from Massachusetts. Having won the presidency by a tiny margin, Kennedy needed the continued loyalty of Southern Democrats. But Barnett's repeated defiance of federal law forced JFK into a risky confrontation.

No African American had ever attended Mississippi's most prestigious and tradition-bound school, known affectionately as Ole' Miss. The Supreme Court had outlawed school segregation in 1954. A determined young man tested the law in Mississippi seven years later. Air Force veteran James Meredith applied to Ole' Miss shortly after President Kennedy was sworn into office in January, 1961. Following more than a year of legal wrangling, the Supreme Court ordered that Meredith be admitted to the university. Barnett pledged to keep Meredith out, declaring on state-wide television: "We will not surrender to the evil and illegal forces of tyranny."

James Meredith tried repeatedly to register for classes at Ole' Miss. Governor Barnett personally blocked his way. U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was carefully monitoring the situation. It was his job to see that the Supreme Court's ruling was carried out. He assigned federal marshals to escort Meredith each time he tried to register. The attorney general was also on the phone with Ross Barnett, looking for a back-channel solution to the crisis.

From September 15 to September 30, Bobby Kennedy and Ross Barnett had more than a dozen phone conversations. Some of these calls may have been recorded, but the tapes do not appear to have been saved. Kennedy's secretaries made verbatim transcripts by listening in on the calls or from tapes themselves.

Historian Bill Doyle, author of American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962, says that Ross Barnett knew integration was inevitable, but needed a way to let James Meredith into Ole' Miss without losing face with his white, pro-segregation supporters. "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,'" Doyle says.

On September 27, 1962 Bobby Kennedy and Ross Barnett agreed on an extraordinary plan: James Meredith would arrive at the Ole' Miss campus in Oxford accompanied by at least 25 armed Federal Marshals (at the time, Marshals were Justice Department agents normally used to transport prisoners, not trained for combat). Ross Barnett would make a show of blocking Meredith, but be forced to step aside when the Marshals drew their guns. In this conversation, at 2:50 p.m., Kennedy and Barnett dicker over just how this play will unfold.

Robert F. Kennedy: I will send the Marshals that I have available up there in Memphis and there will be about 25 or 30 of them and they will come with Mr. Meredith and they will arrive at wherever the gate is and I will have the head Marshal pull a gun and I will have the rest of them have their hands on their guns and their holsters. And then as I understand it, they will go through and get in and you will make sure that law and order is preserved and that no harm will be done to Mr. McShane and Mr. Meredith.

Ross Barnett: Oh, yes.

RFK: And then I think you will see thats accomplished?

RB: Yes. Hold just a minute, will you? Hello, General, I was under the impression that they were all going to pull their guns. This could be very embarrassing. We got a big crowd here and if one pulls his gun and we all turn it would be very embarrassing. Isnt it possible to have them all pull their guns?

RFK: I hate to have them all draw their guns, as I think it could create harsh feelings. Isn't it sufficient if I have one man draw his gun and the others keep their hands on their holsters?

RB: They must all draw their guns. Then they should point their guns at us and then we could step aside. This could be very embarrassing down here for us. It is necessary.

RFK: If they all pull their guns--is that all?

RB: I will have them put their sticks down before that happens. There will be no shooting.

RFK: There will be no problem?

RB: Everyone pull your guns and point them and we will stand aside and you will go right through.

RFK: You will make sure not the Marshals but the State Police will preserve law and order?

RB: There won't be any violence.

Read the full transcript

By the end of the day, the Mississippi governor and the attorney general decided to scrap their plan because it was too dangerous. A mob had gotten word of Meredith's imminent arrival and had begun to descend on Oxford. Barnett and Kennedy feared the staged showdown would spark a riot.


Next: part 2