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photo: LOC, LC-U9-8556-24 (9-8)

On Sunday, September 30, 1962 at 6 p.m., James Meredith was escorted onto the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford by a convoy of Federal Marshals. While he got settled in one of the school dorms, more than 2,500 angry students and outside agitators swarmed around the main campus building, the Lyceum. President Kennedy was informed of Meredith's arrival and went on national television that night to announce this apparent victory and explain that it had been achieved without the use of federal soldiers. He reminded viewers that, "Americans are free, in short, to disagree with the law but not to disobey it." Kennedy continued: "For in a government of laws and not of men, no man, however prominent or powerful, and no mob, however unruly or boisterous, is entitled to defy a court of law."

President Kennedy did not know that, as he spoke, the mob at Ole' Miss was pelting Federal Marshals with bricks, bottles and lead pipes. Within moments the marshals fired tear gas at the crowd. This did not stop the violence and the Federal Marshals lost control of the situation. Despite Ross Barnett's assurances, Mississippi patrolmen, assigned to help keep the peace, turned and left. Two men died early in the rioting, a French journalist and a local jukebox repairman.

The night air in Oxford was sharp with gunfire and tear gas. Ross Barnett was at his office in Jackson, on the phone again to Kennedy in Washington, where it was just past midnight. The governor tried once more to finesse the President. He suggested pulling Meredith back off the campus until things calmed down.

Listen to excerpt

President Kennedy: Well, we can't consider moving Meredith as long as, you know, there's a riot outside, 'cause he wouldn't be safe.

Govenor Barnett: Sir?

JFK: We couldn't consider moving Meredith if you -- if we haven't been able to restore order outside. That's the problem, Governor.

RB: Well, uh, I'll tell you what I'll do, Mr. President. I'll go up there myself--

JFK: Well, now, how long will it take you to get there?

RB: --and I'll get a microphone and tell 'em that uh, you have agreed for him to be removed.

JFK: No. No. Now, wait a minute. How long--Wait a minute, Governor. Now, how long is it going to take you to get up there?

RB: 'Bout an hour.

JFK: Now, I'll tell you what you- if you want to go up there and then you call me from up there. Then we'll decide what we're gonna do before you make any speeches about it.

RB: Well, all right.

JFK: No sense in, uh...

RB: ...I mean, whatever you, if you'd authorize...

JFK: You see, if we don't, we got an hour to go, and that's not, uh, we may not have an hour.

RB: Uh, this, this man--

JFK: Won't it take you an hour to get up there?

RB: --this man has just died.

JFK: Did he die?

RB: Yes.

JFK: Which one? State police?

RB: A state policeman.

JFK: Yeah, well, you see, we gotta get order up there, and that's what we thought we're going to have.

RB: Mr. President, please. Why don't you, uh, can't you give an order up there to remove Meredith?

JFK: How can I remove him, Governor, when there's a riot in the street, and he may step out of that building and something happen to him? I can't remove him under those conditions.

RB: Uh, but, but--

JFK: Let's get order up there, then we can do something about Meredith.

RB: We can surround it with plenty of officials.

JFK: Well, we've gotta get somebody up there now to get order and stop the firing and the shooting. Then when, you and and I will talk on the phone about Meredith. But first we've got to get order.

RB: I'll call and tell them to get every official they can.

JFK: That's right, then you and I will talk. When they've got order there, then you and I will talk about what's the best thing to do about Meredith.

RB: All right then.

JFK: Well, thank you.

RB: All right.

Read the full transcript

Though President Kennedy and Governor Barnett talked several more times, the rioting in Oxford forced both men to do what they wanted most to avoid: Barnett had to step aside without his valiant last stand, and Kennedy had to storm Mississippi with U.S. Army troops. Still, James Meredith achieved his goal: on Monday morning, October 1, 1962, he walked across the smoldering, battered campus of Ole' Miss and registered for classes.

Historians say that President John F. Kennedy simply did not understand the depth and ferocity of Southern racism. The President thought segregation was illogical, and that a cogent argument could make that clear to Ross Barnett. But the Kennedy-Barnett calls show how hard it is for two leaders to work out a problem on the phone if they don't speak the same political language.


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