Earlier that day, the Kennedys thought they had a deal with Barnett. James Meredith would quietly register for classes at a university office in Jackson while Barnett and his segregationist supporters gathered in Oxford. This way, Barnett could pretend the Kennedys had duped him. But the governor backed out of the arrangement, and the Kennedys returned to the earlier plan to register Meredith in Oxford.
The next day, September 30, 1962, hundreds of outraged protestors flooded Oxford to block Meredith's expected arrival. At 12:45 p.m., Bobby Kennedy made an angry call to Barnett. The attorney general warned that if Barnett didn't let Meredith register, President Kennedy would expose their secret telephone negotiations in a televised speech scheduled that evening. Joining Barnett for the call was another man with whom Robert Kennedy had been bargaining, the governor's trusted friend and attorney, Tom Watkins. Again, a transcript but no tape exists for this call.
Governor Barnett: General, Watkins and I are here and no one else. Here is what we think should be done; you should postpone this matter.
Attorney General Kennedy: We can't do that.
RB: Then you had better have enough troops to be dead sure that peace and order will be preserved at the University. I am going to do everything in my power to preserve peace. We will have about 175 or 180 highway patrolmen in there - unarmed; no guns, no sticks of any kind. We will have quite a number of sheriffs—unarmed-- probably 75 or 100 deputy sheriffs. Then they will form this second.line. The highway patrolmen will form the first line; the sheriffs the next. The sheriffs will have probably 200 or 300 soldiers behind them. No one will be armed. I will be in the front line and when Meredith presents himself, I'll do like I did before. I will read a proclamation denying him entrance. I will tell the people of Mississippi now that I want peace and we must have no violence, no bloodshed. When you draw the guns, I will then tell the people. In other words, we will step aside and you can walk in.
RFK: I don't think that will be very pleasant, Governor. I think you are making a mistake handling it in that fashion. I suppose that if you feel it is helpful to you politically. It is not helping the people of Mississippi or the people of the United States. But I gather that is secondary in your judgment. I think it is silly going through this whole facade of your standing there; our people drawing guns; your stepping aside; to me it is dangerous and I think this has gone beyond the stage of politics, and you have a responsibility to the people of that state and to the people of the United States. This is a real disservice...
RB: I'm not interested in politics personally. I have said so many times - we couldn't have integration and I have got to do something. I can't just walk back....The President is going on TV tonight. He is going through the statement had with you last night. He will have to say why he called up the National Guard; that you had an agreement to permit Meredith to go to Jackson to register, and your lawyer, Mr. Watkins, said this was satisfactory; and you would let him fly in by helicopter.
RB: That won't do at all.
RFK: You broke your word to him.
RB: You don't mean the President is going to say that tonight?
RFK: Of course he is; you broke your word; now you suggest we send in troops, fighting their way through a barricade. You gave your word. Mr. Watkins gave him his word. You didn't keep it.
RB: Where didn't I keep it, in what particular?
RFK: When you said you would make an agreement and that Meredith would come into Jackson; send everybody to Oxford.
RB: Don't say that. Please don't mention it.
RFK: The President has to say that. You said we would fly him into Jackson and register him while you had everyone at Oxford. Then you would say he has been registered and you would permit him to come to Oxford by helicopter on Tuesday and go to school. Mr. Watkins pledged his word to the President; we have it all down. You talk to Mr. Watkins and reach an agreement between the two of you, and how you are going to handle this.
RB: Why don't you fly him in this afternoon; please let us treat what we say as confidential?
RFK: You talk to Watkins and call me back this afternoon. I have discussed this with you before; I want to know specifically the plan you have and how it is going to work. I want to maintain law and order...
Read the full transcript
The attorney general's threat worked. Barnett knew that if his segregationist supporters learned he had made a covert deal with the Kennedys, his political career would be over. So, to keep the secret, Barnett agreed to the Kennedy plan: get Meredith safely lodged on campus that evening so he could register for classes Monday morning.
Next: part 5