Former Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, 89, who refused 25 years ago to let a black man enroll in the University of Mississippi and precipitated one of the great battles of the civil rights era, died of pneumonia Nov. 6 at a hospital in Jackson, Miss.
Gov. Barnett led the last major defiance by a state of federal supremacy in civil rights when he denied James Meredith, an Air Force veteran, admission to Ole Miss. The governor promised that "no school will be integrated while I am your governor."
Riots erupted on the Oxford campus on Sept. 30, 1962, as Meredith waited in a dormitory to become the first black to register at Ole Miss. The riots transformed the stately campus into a military battlefield and ended with two dead and hundreds injured. Meredith officially enrolled the next day under the protection of federal marshals and Army troops.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which had ordered Meredith's admission, cited Gov. Barnett for contempt of court for his role. He never served time nor paid the fine, and the charges were dropped in 1965.
Barred by law from running for a second consecutive term in 1963, Gov. Barnett ran for governor again in 1967 and finished fourth in the Democratic primary.
Ross Robert Barnett was born Jan. 22, 1898, the youngest of 10 children of John W. and Virginia Ann Barnett, and grew up on a small farm in the Standing Pine community of rural Leake County, Miss.
He was elected governor in 1959 and devoted much of his energy to recruiting industry, which he viewed as his major accomplishment. But he rose to national prominence with his efforts to preserve Mississippi's long history of segregation.
At age 16, he began working as a barber and janitor while attending high school. He also operated a barbershop while attending Mississippi College in Clinton, where he studied after World War I service. After graduating from college in 1922, he coached athletics and taught high school in northern Mississippi before entering the University of Mississippi School of Law at Oxford. He worked as a law librarian and was class president and a member of the debating team before graduating with honors in 1926.
He then began to practice law in Jackson, the state capital, where he specialized in damage suits and trial work in general. From 1943 to 1944, he was president of the Mississippi State Bar Association. He also donated his legal talents to groups advocating white supremacy.
In 1951, he made his first bid for the governorship. He lost that year, and again in 1955, to J.P. Coleman. In 1959, he defeated Lt. Gov. Carroll Gartin for the Democratic nomination for governor, and ran unopposed in the general election.
His campaign for the governorship was based on white supremacy. He appealed to fundamentalist groups that segregation was devinely inspired, saying, "The Negro is different because God made him different to punish him."
Inaugurated as the state's 52nd governor on Jan. 19, 1960, he sought to carry out his campaign pledges as a champion of white supremacy. He helped provide state funds for Mississippi's prosegregation Association of Citizens Councils. During the 1960 presidential election, he became the only major figure to bolt the Democratic Party. He threw his weight to an unpledged slate of electors, and Mississippi cast its eight votes for Sen. Harry F. Byrd (D-Va.) for president, rather than the winning national ticket headed by John F. Kennedy.
In 1961, violence flared in Montgomery, Ala., when civil rights workers, known as Freedom Riders, attempted to end segregation in bus terminals and other public facilities. Gov. Barnett let it be known that this would not happen in Mississippi. When the Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson, they were arrested and jailed -- with no violence.
Gov. Barnett claimed a triumph. He had told U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy that federal marshals were not needed, that the police and National Guard could keep order in Mississippi.
After the Freedom Riders were jailed, Gov. Barnett said, "I feel wonderful. I'm so happy that everything went off smoothly. The nation had its eyes on Mississippi today, and I think we showed them that we could handle our own affairs in an orderly manner."
After leaving public life, he was reluctant to discuss his struggles with the federal government and with civil rights. He said he didn't "want to open up old wounds." But he also said, "Generally speaking, I'd do the same things again."
Gov. Barnett's wife, the former Pearl Crawford, predeceased him. His survivors include a son, Ross Jr., of Jackson; two daughters, Virginia Branum of Montreat, N.C., and Ouida Atkins of Jackson; 14 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.