Former Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, who 25 years ago sparked a constitutional crisis when he defied federal authority by refusing to allow a black man to attend the University of Mississippi, died Friday.
Mourners gathered Saturday in Jackson to pay last respects to Barnett, 89, who died of pneumonia after several years in failing health at a nursing home.
The tall, bespectacled Barnett triggered a showdown between federal and state authorities in 1962 when he tried unsuccessfully to prevent the integration of the university. A U.S. Circuit Court cited him for contempt and President John F. Kennedy threatened to have him jailed after he physically blocked the path of James H. Meredith as the first black to enroll.
Barnett finally gave in to federal orders for integration, saying: "My heart still says 'never,' but my calm judgment abhors the bloodshed that will follow." Riots in which two people died and scores were injured flared at the Oxford campus after federal marshals helped Meredith register. The governor blamed the marshals for the violence.
Focus on Industry
The gruff-voiced Barnett graduated from the University of Mississippi law school in 1926. Elected governor in 1959, he devoted much of his four-year term to recruiting industry, which he considered his major accomplishment.
But the Democratic governor was best known for his staunch segregationist views. A year after the Ole Miss incident, the governor called for a nationwide mass relocation of blacks so they would be evenly distributed around the country.
In later years Barnett was reluctant to discuss the events, but once said, "generally speaking, I'd do the same things again." At age 85, however, he rode in a Jackson parade that commemorated black civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in Mississippi while Barnett was governor. The parade celebrated the progress in civil rights made by Mississippi since the 1960s.
"He'll be remembered as a man who stood up for what he said he believed in, whether he was right or wrong," said Claude Sitton, executive editor of the News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C. Sitton covered Mississippi in the 1960s as a reporter for The New York Times.
He and his wife, Pearl Crawford Barnett, had three children.