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While Barnett and Kennedy were secretly negotiating by phone, radio stations across the South were blaring bulletins about the situation. White racists were grabbing their guns and heading for Oxford.

Rather than send army troops to escort Meredith to Ole' Miss, President Kennedy dispatched scores of Federal Marshals to Mississippi - lightly armed men clad awkwardly in suits, ties and gas masks. At the same time, JFK wanted Ross Barnett to assure him that Mississippi patrolmen would help maintain law and order as the threat of a race riot on the university campus in Oxford grew. Less than an hour after their first conversation, Kennedy and Barnett spoke again.

Listen to excerpt

President Kennedy: Governor, this is the President speaking.

Governor Barnett: Yes, sir.

JFK: Now it's, I know that your feeling about the law of Mississippi and the fact that you don't want to carry out that court order. What we really want to have from you, though, is some understanding about whether the state police will maintain law and order. We understand your feeling about the court order and your disagreement with it. But what we're concerned about is how much violence is going to be and what kind of action we'll have to take to prevent it. And I'd like to get assurances from you that the state police down there will take positive action to maintain law and order. Then we'll know what we have to do.

RB: They'll, they'll take positive action, Mr. President, to maintain law and order as best we can.

JFK: And now, how good is--

RB: [Interrupting] We'll have 220 highway patrolmen--

JFK: Right.

RB: --and they'll absolutely be unarmed. Not a one of them'll be armed.

JFK: Well, the problem is, well, what can they do to maintain law and order and prevent the gathering of a mob and action taken by the mob? What can they do? Can they stop that?

RB: Well, they'll do their best to. They'll do everything in their power to stop it.

JFK: Now, what about the suggestions made by the Attorney General in regard to not permitting people to congregate and start a mob?

RB: Well, we'll do our best to, to keep them from congregating, but that's hard to do, you know.

JFK: Well, they just tell them to move along.

RB: When they start moving up on the sidewalks and different sides of the streets, what are you going to do about it?

JFK: Well, now, as I understand it, Governor, you would do everything you can to maintain law and order.

Read the full transcript

Despite Governor Barnett's promise, he did not maintain order. Though he'd been privately negotiating with the White House, Barnett made a defiant speech at a Saturday night Ole' Miss football game. He was cheered on by some 40,000 fans.


Next: part 4