Governor Ross Barnett, Georgia Governor S. Ernest Vandiver and JFK at a poultry tariff meeting, June 4, 1962 photo: NARA
When Bobby Kennedy could not get Governor Barnett to comply with the order of the Supreme Court, President Kennedy stepped in. On September 29 and 30, 1962, JFK had a series of conversations with Governor Barnett. He hoped to manage the crisis by telephone. Their first call took place at 2 p.m. on Friday, September 29.
President Kennedy: This, uh, listen, I didn't, uh, put him in the university, but on the other hand, under the Constitution, I have to carry out the orders of the, carry that order out and I don't, I get, uh, I don't want to do it in any way that causes, uh, difficulty to you or to anyone else. But I've got to do it. Now, I'd like to get your help in doing that...Alright. Well, now let me, let me say this, uh--
Governor Barnett: You know what I am up against, Mr. President. I took an oath, you know, to abide by the laws of this state . . .
JFK: That's right.
RB: --and our constitution here and the Constitution of the United States. I'm, I'm on the spot here, you know.
JFK: Right. Well, of course, the problem is, Governor, that, uh, I got my responsibility, just like you have yours--
RB: Well, that's true. I--
JFK: --and my responsibility, of course, is to the ...
RB: --I realize that, and I appreciate that so much.
JFK: Well, now here's the thing, uh, Governor, I will, uh, the attorney general can talk to, uh, Mr. Watkins tomorrow. What I want, would like to do is to try to work this out in an amicable way. We don't want a lot of people down there getting hurt . . .
RB: Oh, that's right.
JFK: --and we don't want to have a -- You know it's very easy to-
RB: Mr. President, let me say this. They're calling, calling me and others from all over the state, wanting to bring a thousand, wanting to bring five hundred, and two hundred, and all such as that, you know.
JFK: I know, well the ...
RB: We don't want such as that.
JFK: I know. Well, we don't want to have a, we don't want to have a lot of people getting hurt or killed down there.
RB: Why, that's, that's correct...I appreciate your interest in our poultry program and all those things.
President Kennedy apparently thought Barnett was a pushover. After the call, he turned to his brother and said, "You've been fighting a sofa pillow all week." But JFK was wrong. According to civil rights historian Taylor Branch, Ross Barnett had the president and attorney general wrapped around his finger.
"He's being kind of a yokel and saying 'Thanks for your help on the poultry program'," Branch says. "But Bobby Kennedy and Jack Kennedy are running Meredith up and down and trying to do whatever Barnett wants, so Barnett is not too upset...They're never sure whether he's making a fool of them or they're making a fool of him. But they know as the evenings go on, they feel less and less in control, so the suspicion starts to rise that maybe Barnett's making a fool of them."