The office of governor is the only public office Ross Barnett ever held and the only political office for which he ever campaigned. He is also one of only two Mississippians who ran for the office four times. He ran and lost in 1951 and 1955, he was elected in 1959, and he ran again unsuccessfully in 1967. Governor Barnett was also the last governor who was born in the century in which Mississippi was admitted to statehood.
Born at Standing Pine in Leake County, Mississippi, on January 22, 1898, Barnett was one of Mississippi’s most successful trial lawyers. After graduating from Mississippi College in 1922, Barnett earned a law degree at the University of Mississippi in 1926 and opened a law practice in Jackson.
During Governor Barnett’s administration the state of Mississippi was celebrating the centennial of the American Civil War. The state was also adjusting to the great changes brought on by the Civil Rights Movement. Governor Barnett vowed to maintain segregation in the state’s public schools, even pledging to go to jail before he would allow integration. But in 1962, the United States Supreme Court directed the University of Mississippi to admit James H. Meredith, an African American applicant. Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss broke the color barrier in Mississippi and his admission was the first step in the eventual elimination of all racial segregation in the state’s public schools and universities.
Although Governor Barnett is most remembered for the Meredith crisis at Ole Miss, there were several significant economic developments during his administration. A series of amendments to the state’s workmen’s compensation law and the enactment of a “right to work law,” made Mississippi more attractive to outside industry. More than 40,000 new jobs were created during his four years in office. Governor Barnett's industrial development program also included the construction of industrial parks throughout the state and the establishment of a Youth Affairs Department under the Agricultural and Industrial Board.
Governor Barnett resumed his law practice after leaving office in 1964, but continued an active interest in state politics. In 1967, he ran for governor but was eliminated in the first primary. After that defeat, Barnett resumed his law practice in Jackson. Governor Barnett was one of Mississippi’s last great “stump speakers” and remained a favorite at the Neshoba County Fair until his death on November 6, 1987. Ross Barnett Reservoir in Madison and Rankin counties and Barnett Lake in Smith County are named in honor of Governor Barnett.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Ross Barnett Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Sansing, David. The University of Mississippi, A Sesquicentennial History, 281-313
Johnston, Erle. I Rolled With Ross! (Baton Rouge, 1980).