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tv   Occupied Minds  LINKTV  July 28, 2022 6:00am-7:01am PDT

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norance d concer for rld pee e to be und on the stres of nework anchicago and s anges, as duri that me,wnand the farspoke governobarnt probab 25 times. heanted e marsha to dw their ns. - [announcer]: major funding for reel south was provided by: etv endowment, the national endowment for the arts, center for asian-american media,
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south arts, and by the corporation for public broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the american people. additional funding for "you asked for the facts" was provided by: [film reel] [crowd chatter] robert f. kennedy: you're going to go with them here. [crowd chatter] speaker 2: thanks. i appreciate it. speaker 3: could you give an autograph? speaker 4: senator, what do you feel about the reception you got from these students down here? robert f. kennedy: it's very nice. speaker 4: the students are most happy to have you here.
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speaker 5: why don't you try us at football? robert f. kennedy: i think you're too good for us down here. gerald blessey: he was speaking primarily to law students, although the rest of the student body was there, that advancing the law and adherence to law is what makes us unique in the world. he was appealing to the needs of the day. robert f. kennedy: the american tradition of giving free voice to conflicting opinions and belis really distinguishes our society from other gerald blessey: free speech matters. open debate matters. robert f. kennedy: you must use your lamps, the lamps of your learning. gerald blessey: kennedy was appealing to the better angels of our nature. and there are better angels in mississippi, like everywhere. robert f. nnedy: to show our people pa the fort of stereotypes and slogans into the clear light of reality and of fact and of truth. gerald bless: you look at all sides of issues
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in order to hopefully have the truth be the victor. everybody wins when justice is done. justice is only done when truth is the victor. ed ellington: first question, frank? robert f. kennedy: if you say it, then we can repeat the question. frank thackston: mr. kennedy, who, in your opini, is the person primarily responsible for the ole miss riots, andhy? ed ellington: the question was, in your onion, who was the person primarily responsible for the ole miss riots and why? [laughter] robert f. nnedy: that was an interting question. [music playing]
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[film reel] speaker 6: oxford is a town with a population of 5,200, spread
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in the rolling fir- and pine-covered hil of north mississippi. olmiss haseen at oxford for 114 years and is more noted r thbeauty of its women and the strength of its football tea rather than for high academic standards. but 29-year-old james redith married the father of a little girl who wanted tattend ole miss. speaker 7: studio. hagan thompson: this is gan ompson athe state fice building in jackson. james meredith has just arrived and is apparently making his way up to the 10th floor to register. [jeering] and the national press view this as the most critical time in its 114-year history. speaker 9: go home! speaker 8: meredith, in the words of attorney general robert kennedy, will be escorted by more than one but less than five federal marshals, who will be armed with a federal court order that this all-white university admit its first negro student.
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speaker 10: governor barnett, we're going to leave these summons here with you. and i want to explain to you that the circuit court of appeals for the fifth circuit entered a temporary restraining order at 8:30 this mning eoining you from interfering of misssippi y arles k. ross: prior to 1962, this institution represented maybe the golden era of segregation in the state of mississippi in that it was the epitome of white supremacy and it was this kind of beacon on the hill. donald r. cole: a place that was over there would not welcome us. anso in some sense, it was seen as the forefront of the battlefie. ross barnett: --under such proclamation and for such reasons do hereby now and finally denyou admission to the university
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of mississippi. [reporters clamor] speaker 10: you refuse to permit him-- ross barnett: yes. speaker 10: --to come in the door. ross barnett: yes. speaker 10: all right, governor. thank you. ross barnett: i do that politely. speaker 10: thank you. and we leave politely. [interposing voices] speaker 10: goodbye. [jeering] speaker 9: go home! go home! go home! ross barnett: i have said in every county in mississippi that no school in our state will be integrated while i am your governor. i repeat this to you tonight. no school will be integrated in mississippi while i am your governor. reuben v. anderson: he was the bravest man in my lifetime in mississippi that i knew.
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there would be no way for me to do what james meredith did. he was a great man. [music playing] curtis wilkie: it was the biggest story in the world. it was finally pushed off the front pages by the cuban missile crisis in october of '62. but i felt for a time, and i wasn't alo, that mississippi might try to secede from the union again. speaker 12: if integration attempts are made here, mississippians are-- ross barnett: close to the brink of an open revolution! james h. meredith: my job was to get the laws that applied to citizens of america to apply to me. the only thing that mattered to me was what i did. i pretty well knew what the opposition was going to do. speaker 13: little rock was a skirmish. oxford was the war. james meredith is enrolled at the university of mississippi.
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the school is technically integrated at the cost of two lives, almost 200 injuries, and the reputation of a state. now the questions are, was it worth it? [music playing] ross barnett: i could not pass this platform without first reaffirming fully my absolute and unshakable for segregation of the races at all levels.
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[film reel] curtis wilkie: when he ran again in '67, i think, at the outset, people thought that he would be a hard figure to beat. [music playing - "let's roll again with ross"] all the reds in washington will say they hope ross will fall along the way. but we won't give our state to little bobby k. roll with ross, roll with ross, roll again with ross. who is the best man yet? ross barnett, ross barnett. curtis wilkie: barnett had a reputation of just kind of a blundering blunderbuss. and we all thought he was a complete buffoon, something of a fool. he was constantly doing goofy things. so he was a laughable figure of mythic proportions here in mississippi history.
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gerald blessey: he had been a trial lawyer. he made a lot of money appealing to juries. so he was tall and gregarious. he used language that a six-year-old would understand. he appealed to racial hatred and bias. curtis wilkie: oh, he was a quintessential demagogue. ross barnett: my conscience is clear. i am moved only by a deep and abiding affection for the welfarof all of the people of mississii. dold r. co: the syem thatallowec was a system that had pretty much disenfranchised the people of color vote. and so i'm sure that he felt free to use them and use that to promote his political will. frank thackston: the key to political success
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in mississippi at the time was to convince the voters that you're more conservative then your political opponent. the translation of that is that you are a bigger racist on the race question than your opponent. gerald bless: some of us had heard-- the young democrats had heard, particularly my friend cleveland donald, who was the second african-american to come to ole miss in 1964-- cleveland had been much more active, of course, in the civil rights movement than i was. he had more connections with civil rights organizations, and he had some friends in senator kennedy's office in washington. they had told him that barnett had conversations with the president and the attorney general about trying to fake pulling guns to make him back off.
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and there were actually recordings that had been taped. curtis wilkie: the crazy phone calls took place when barnett was asking for the marshals to pull a gun on him, and he would stand aside. and damned if bobby kennedy agreed to the first proposal, that one gun would be pulled. the public didn't know that. john f. kennedy: hello? ross barnett: all right? john f. kennedy: governor, this is the president speaking. i didn't put him in the universit but on the other hand, under the constitution, i have to carry out the orders of the-- carry that order out. i don't want to do it in any way that causes difficulty to you or to anyone else, but i've got to dot. now, i'd like to get your help in doing that. ross barnett: you know what i'm up against, mr. president. i took an oath to abide by the laws of this state and our constitution here and the constitution of the united states. i'm on the spot here, you know. charles k. ross: we're going to try
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to work wi this segregationist governor who we know is probably not someone that you can really trust, plead with him, talk with him, hope that he is ing to give a certain amount of protection for meredith, and he's going to follow the order. john f. kennedy: the attorney general's right here. he'll come right on the other phone. wait just a minute. ross barnett: all right, all right. rort f. kennedy: hello? rossarnett: ye sir, general, how are you? robert f. kennedy: fine, governor. how are you? ross barnett: fine, fine. robert f. kennedy: one of the basic requirements, in my judgment, was the maintenance of law and order. and that would require some very strong and vocal action by you yourself. ross barnett: well, i'm certainly going to try to maintain law and order, mr. general, just the very best way that i can. general, how can i violate my oath of office? how can i do that and live with the people of mississippi? you know, they're expecting me to keep my word.
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that's what i'm up against, and i-- hn f. kennedy: governor, this-- ross barnett: --don't knt wouldn't understand that. john f. kennedy: governor, this is the president speaking. john f. kennedy: well, now, as i unrstand it, governor, you would do everything you can to maintain law and order. ross barnett: i'll do everything in my power to maiain order-- john f. kennedy: right. now-- ross barnett: --and peace. we don't want any shooting down here. john f. keedy: i understand. now, governor, what about-- can you maintain this order? ross barnett: well, i don't know. that's what i'm worried about. i don't know whether i can or not. but i'm going toooperate. charles k. ross: the kennedys kept asking him would he be able to actually get this done? john f. kennedy: well, now, let me get my people back again. ross barnett: i'm doing everything in the world i can. john f. kennedy: i'm sorry. well, we've got to get this situation under control. that's much more important than anything else. ross barnett: that's right. john f. kennedy: now, let me talk to my people. let me tell them-- find out what the situation is. they called me a few minutes ago and said they had some high-powered rifles there. so we don't want to start moving anybody around. ross barnett: people are wiring me and caing me, saying, well, you've given up. i had to say, no, i'm not giving up, not ving up any fight. john f. kennedy: yeah, but we don't want to--
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ross barnett: i never give up. i have courage and faith, and we'll win this fight. you understand. that's just the mississippi people. charles k. ross: he can't publicly tell the crowd, well, i've been talking to the president of the united states, and what they want to happen is x, y, and z. no, he's trying to put forward to the crowd and let them know under no uncertain terms i am committed to segregation, which he was. gerald blessey: but barnett continued to play the hysteria, if we just hold out, we can stop this. curtis wilkie: and he had the audacity to show up at the football game in jackson that saturday night. [whistle] ellen b. meacham: 50,000 people were waving confederate flags. curtis wilkie: it was hysterical. gerald blessey: it reminded me, frankly, of the nazi rallies at nuremberg with the swastika flags. [music playing - "go, mississippi"] keep rolling along.
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go mississippi, you cannot go wrong. go mississippi, we're singing your song. gerald blessey: ross barnett, during the halftime, made this terrible demagogic racist speech inciting people, really, to riot. he was urging everybody to come to ole miss and stand in the door and stand against the united states government. ross barnett: i love mississippi. [cheers] i love her people-- [cheers] --our customs. i love and i respect our heritage. [cheers] ellen b. meacham: they wrote a new song just for the occasion. ross is standing like gibraltar, and he shall never falter. ask us what we say it's to hell with bby k. curtis wilkie: barnett has been, by this time, cited for criminal contempt by the fifth circuit with the specter of possibly going to prison.
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and that's when he ultimately made the deal with the kennedys that brought meredith to the campus. they shouldn't have. that contributed to the disaster. ellen b. meacham: he miscalculated how fiercely resistant the mississippi leadership was going to be. curtis wilkie: they made a hash of the thing. ross barnett: we must either submit to the unlawful dictates of the federal government or stand up like men and say to them plainly, never. ellen b. meacham: i think the conflict with mississippi over ole miss did more than almost anything to open his eyes. he kind of evolved. charles k. ross: the good was that they finally decided to go on ahead and step up and federalize the military. being able to get meredith in, fundamentally changing
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the institution, they had to talk among themselves and recognize that that took a real toll on them, probably, politically. but on the other hand, they were able to fundamentally change this institution. no president of the united states had ever done anything like that. john f. kennedy: it was for this reason that i federalized the mississippi national guard as the most approprie instrument, should any be needed, to preserve law and order. our united states marshals carried out the orders of the court. william f. winter: it was all behind closed doors. no one knew at the time that he was having those conversations. gerald blessey: the local press, the hederman press, in jackson, it was like a propaganda machine for the segregationist leadership. they would not print those things.
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ellen b. meacham: they were a very powerful influence in supporting candidates. they had a direct telephone line to the governor's office. you couldn't call them a newspaper. they were an organ for white supremacy. ed ellington: and then the tv stations were the same way. speaker 14: if i may, we don't rega this as integration at the university of mississippi. we regard it simply as military occupation. speaker 15: i was going to ask what about the rights of these other 5,000 students at ole miss? have they no right an educion? ross barnett: well, of course they do. gerald blessey: it was like-- in mississippi, where james silver-- professor silver wrote a book called "mississippi, the closed society." well, it was closed largely by the press. ellen b. meacham: when you have that kind of propaganda just being hammered home again and again and you're not being exposed to any alternative viewpoints, it creed a real atmosphere of fear and worry and uncertainty. people in power made you feel under siege, that everybody
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is just picking on us. so there was a good bit of animosity towards people outside the south. speaker 16: if you agree that individual liberty and constitutional government must be preserved, if you want to do something positive and worthwhile to help protect our freedom, then we want to hear from you. just writeo citizens' council in jackson, mississippi. gerald blessey: even those who knew better, like professors and educated people and so forth, they were reluctant to talk about in public because there was so much condemnation and intimidation. speaker 16: assisted by grant from the mississippi state sovereigy commission, an official agency of the state of mississippi. len b. meacham: the state had its own spy agency, essentially. they paid mississippians to spy on other mississippians. reuben v. anderson: the sovereignty commission investigated 85,000. mississippians and they were a force in holding black people down and white people
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who wanted to change things. we lost a lot of great people who gave up on mississippi and moved away. speaker 16: it's time to take a stand. [music playing] gerald blessey: barnett was governor up until the end of 1963. he couldn't run for re-election, but he could step out for four years and come back, which is what we feared. we didn't want to spend the rest of our lives being led by people like that. frank thackston: barnett had prospects for getting re-elected, and maybe senator kennedy would like to have something to say about that. gerald blessey: but if we could just expose those conversations, he'd be seen as a liar, even to the segregationists. we'd need to figure out how to get those tapes out.
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cleveland and i got to talking about, what if we could have robert kennedy come and tell the story? but we knew there was a speaker ban. no student or other organization or a faculty member or anybody on any university campus could invite anybody from off campus to come and speak on the campus about anything. it was just an awful assault on the first amendment. les face it. curtis wilkie: if they triedo bring in anybody whoould speak other than the dogma that we were being told, they'd be prohibited by the speakers' ban. gerald blessey: the authority to approve a list under the speaker ban was up to the head of the uversity. if we just put the chancellor on the spot with one name, robert kennedy, it would be hard to persuade him to approve us. we needed a group to do it. so the strategy was to try to get a list of speakers approved
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with a new speakers bureau before it became known that robert kennedy was being invited. i said, well, why don't we form a law school speakers bureau? because the law school which-- in fact, it was under attack by the segregationists because of dean josh morse, who's-- the great hero in the story is josh morse, the dean of the e miss law school, because he approved of us forming the speakers bureau and then explained our strategy. that is, were we going to invite a whole bunch of conservatives and robert kennedy and try to get it approved make it easy for the chancellor to approve a list so he could y, well, look, they're inviting all sides of ts question. it's not just robert kennedy coming in to brainwash people. frank thackston: if they had had the argument
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that the kennedy invitation was inspired by a bunch of liberals-- communists, they were called-- they wld have used that as a weapon to promote the argument, to rescind the invitation. gerald blessey: i'm known as a liberal democratn campus. and let's pick somebody who's not well-known, politically, but we know is for integration and for the constitution. and ed ellington filled that bill. ed ellington: he appointed a new speaker's bureau, and i was chairman of it. the committee voted to invite him, and i signed the letter. there's no telling how many invitations robert kennedy got to speak. he probably got 100 a day. they probably had one guy over there stamping no on them. james donald: cleveland had ties in dc. he was a man about the truth. he was agitating for change. that's the way cleveland dithings. gerald blessey: and we just thought
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he was going to talk to his aides, but when it got there, senator kennedy talked to him directly. and he explained to the senator that we had this invitation that was coming to him. and what we wanted him to do is tell the truth about the tapes and the dialogue and the conversations by ross barnett with the president and with him, robert kennedy. senator kennedy made it clear that he would not come down and make a speech attacking somebody, that he would be glad to answer questions. and if he were asked questions about that event, he would answer them. had to be asked more than once. ok, we'll send the invitation to him. but who's going to ask these questions? we picked frank because he was real smart. we knew he was for the constitution. he was liberal by comparison, but he wasn't known to be. i explained to frank that you're probably going to have to ask it three times so that you're really making the senator answer a question and he's not coming down here on the offense.
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and let's make it clear through the speakers bureau that nobody else asks a question-- from the law school, at least-- until frank gets his questions asked. it was really stagecraft. we staged this. clearly, we were setting this thing up to g barne. i guess we were somewhat naive in thinking that with robert kennedy on the list among a lot of people, he wouldn't be noticed that much. but, of course, he was. so then it got out into the mainstream news that robert kennedy had been invited, and also some of these other people. ed ellington: that's when things hit the fan and life got interesting. frank thackston: word got around that there was the potential for robert kennedy to come to the law school. and there was such a firestorm-- i'll describe it as the kennedy haters--
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absolutely went crazy. free speech was a secondary issue. the principal issue was that he was a bad guy, he had political views with which we disagree, liberal ideas on the race question, and all those things disqualified him from coming to ole miss and giving a speech. william f. winter: it was not a popular position to take to be agreeing with robert kennedy at that time. reuben v. anderson: the attitude was that you go back to massachusetts and take care of business up there and leave mississippi alone. ellen b. meacham: given the angry rhetoric and the deaths that had happened during the civil rights movement and years previously, it wasn't unreasonable for people to think that he might be in some kind of real physical danger. gerald blessey: letters, threatening letters, threatening phone calls, death threats towards virtually
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everybody involved of various kinds, we were afraid for the senator. we were afraid for him. we felt if anybody was going to be a targe it would be him. frank thackston: the whole thing leading up to it was just surreal. important influential legislators were putting pressure on the dean to rescind the invitation. ed ellington: i think a lot of them had known the deals that the governor had tried to cut. they didn't want the general public to know what had really happened. i was called to the chancellor's office. the trust was they did want me to withdraw the invitation. they asked me such things as what do you think this is going to do the school? gerald blessey: his law school career is on the line, whether he was going to get expelled, what was going to go on. ed ellington: but i decide, whatever problems they brought up, i was not going to pretend to have the answer to it.
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i simply was going to tell them if they wanted but i was not going to. gerald blessey: well, then, the board called dean morse and the chancellor on the carpet and said they would have to withdraw the invitation. but they refused. they said they would resign if the board withdrew the invitation. and they said ole miss would probably lose its accreditation. and josh added, being the great trial lawyer that he was, like a closing argument, by the way, you're risking having the football team get kicked out of the ncaa. he was bluffing. he was just being a trial lawyer and bluffing, scaring the hell out of them about their most importa asse and after that, the board ted by a o-vote margin to allow kennedy to come to ole miss. williaiam f. winter: he understd that that was the right place
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to be. dick scruggs: it was a game week atmosphere. it was a big event. and so it created a lot of excitement on campus. charles k. ross: robert f. kennedy on the campus of the university of mississippi that represents this bason of segregation, this closed society. frank thackston: the more the consternation-- the public consternation about him coming-- wringing of hands about what a hell of a note it was that he was invited in the first place-- the more people wanted to come. gerald blessey: there were a lot of reassurances. the chancellor invited ethel to come with senator kennedy, a special invitation--
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invite your wife to come, please, and we'll have lunch. donald r. cole: that allowed a humanistic side of him to be seen a lot sooner. i trust you enough. even in this dangerous situation, i bring my most dear loved one with me. gerald blessey: we had a luncheon. but after going through the receiving line and shaking hands and introducing everybody, both ethel and robert went and did the same thing for all the kitchen help. the kennedys greeted them just as warmly, and they were just as glad to see them, which just didn't happen back then. he was just being gracious, he and ethel. and they chatted with everybody. they took time to talk to the workers. they took time to talk to the students. ed ellington: i sat across the table from him and miss kennedy. he had asked me how people felt about him. i told him that most people didn't like him.
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but i said, of course, what they're really interested in is what happened leading up to the ole miss riots. and i said, and i hope, if you speak on it, i hope you'll be very detailed in your remarks. ethel kennedy: frankly, before i sat dow i remember looking for the door. if we need to get out of here, it would be great to know thehortest way. but it was just the opposite end of the scale. there was a warmth there that was totally unexpected.
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dick scruggs: i had no idea his wife had come with him. and when they walked out on stage holding hands like, here we are, here we are, with a disarming smile and waving at the crowd, i had goosebumps. it wasn't just a polite applause. this was a standing ovation just for the courage that he and his wife showed to come out on that stage. and that was before they'd ever said a word. jo thackston: i remember being just thrilled ouof my mind. and looking around and seeing the people in the balcony, it was totally filled with people that were excited and happy. i could not believe that about the kennedy family in mississippi. it was like a presidential campaign. there were so many newspeople. robert f. kennedy: i want to say how grateful i am--
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are to be with you here today. i've heard a great dl about the university of mississippi. [laughter] so i was anxious to come. and i'm very grateful fo your warm reception to us. i know that there was some controversy about my coming and that somebody downd that it was like putting a fox in the chicken house. and elsewhere, some omy frien said it was like putting a chicken in a fox hou. [applause] ethel kennedy: i think it was astounded by the reception. first of all, there were crowds everywhere. and secondly, they were friendly.
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nobody was throwing things. it was an eye-opener. it was heartwarming. robert f. kennedy: and i have great respect for the fact that we hold those differences and that you still invited me to be here with you today. i am grateful to the speakers bureau and to you whoave supported that invitation. the american tradition of giving free voice to conflicting opinions and beliefs really distinguishes our society from others, and that tradition, i think, that we fulfill today. and so i'm glad and i'm proud to be in mississippi. racial injustice and poverty, ignorance and concern for world peac are to found the streets of w york and in chicago and los angeles as well as in the towns and the farmlands of mississippi. you face no problem that the nation does not face.
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you share no hope that is not shared by the young people across this country. you bear no burden that they do not also bear. this is the reality of the new south. this is the meaning of the modern southern revolution. and you are its heirs. your generation, south and north, white and black, is the first with the chance not only to remedy the mistakes which all of us have made in the past, but to transcend them. this generation of mississippians can not only serve your state, it can and it must take up the troubling burdens of a great nation with global responsibilities. we will not find answers in old dogmas, by repeating outworn slogans, or fighting
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on ancient battlegrounds against fading enemies long after the real struggle has moved on. we ourselves must ange in order to master change. we must rethink our old ideas and beliefs before they capture and before they destroy us. for those answers, america must look to its young people, the children of this time of change. to make others see. plato id that if we are to have any hope for the future, that those who have lanterns will pass them on to others. you must u your lamps, the lamps of your learning, to show our people past the forest of stereotypes and slogans into the clear light of reality and of fact and of truth. and answers founded on clear and dispassionate thought
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must be matched at the same time by action rooted in conviction and a passionate desire to reshape the world. it is not enough to understa or to s clearly. the future will be shaped in the arena of human activit by those willing to commit their minds and their bodies to the task. you here in this room, you are needed in public service, in mississippi and in washington, in private foundations and in the classroom, in teachings and in building. no matter where you go or what you do, there will be an opportunity to serve, to commit yourself to a great public enterprise of american life. we know that we must make progress, not because it is economically advantageous, not because the law ys that we should do so, but because
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of the fundantal reason that its the right thing to do. james donald: his speech was all about change. we nd to change in the south. dick scruggs: just the act of his coming here was sufficient to go. if he said nothing, if he just walked out on stage and waved and walked away, it would have spoken volumes. [applause] gerald blessey: he and ethel stand up, and there's a standing ovati. and then we go to the main event for us, the question-and-ansr period. frank thackston: i'd sat down sort of down in the front, where he could see me so he could ask me
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fothe queson. gerald blessey: and ed ellington-- we'd already programmed this. ed ellington: first question, frank? gerald blessey: ed called on frank thackston first. frank thackston: mr. senator, who, in your opinion, riot and why? ed ellington: the question was, in your opinion, who was the person primarily responsible for the ole miss riots and why? [laughter] robert f. kennedy: that wa an ieresting question. [laughter] frank thackston: who de to be responsible for e ole mi riots? sothing provocative like that. and, of course, he ducked that. robert f. kennedy: can i just tell you a short story? my older brother was in the navy, and he was in intelligence, originally. and he was giving a lecture in south carolina. and he was telling the people what they should do if a bomb dropped.
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and he said there were two kinds of bombs that dropped and spread fire. one kind of fire, you threw sand on. and the other kind of fire, you threw water on it. but if you threw water on the one that you're supposed to throw sand on, it would spread it. so you had to be very careful. so he made this talk, and evidently it was a great success. and then, at the end, he made the mistake of saying, are there any questions? and somebody got up and said, well, how do you tell one kind of fire from the other? and he said, there's a fellow coming next week to explain that. but i will try. on the incident of the affairs at the end of october of 1962, i don't know that anybody can say that one individual is responsible, more responsible than anybody else. i'd be glad to discuss if you want to discuss the problems of september and october of 1962. but i don't think that i could say that any one person is more responsible. it was a series of events and a series of actions, and i don't know that there s one person.
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frank thackston: i do remember having to pose two or three questions to get the question i wanted. robert f. kennedy: you want to ask me another question about that, i'be glad to answer a question. frank thackston: ed and i talked about that. and laughiny said that i'd be good dude to do that because i would press him for the question. and that's what i did. robert f. kennedy: well, at what point-- i'd be glad to discuss it, but what point-- rather than me just to start, when do you want to start, and what do you want to do? because we can be here for an hour. why don't you take something that you heard about me, and i'll tell you whether it's true or not. [laughter] [applause] i asked at lunch today whether anybody-- my host whether anybody thought anything good of me down here. and host s very frank and said, you want me toive you a frank answer?
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and i said, yes. and he said, i don't think there is anybody. [laughter] so let's start from that. curtis wilkie: so it was essentially kind of a setup. kennedy knew he was going to be asked about it, and he was prepared to talk about it, was alst delhted talk about it. robert f. kennedy: well, first, as far as mr. meredith is concerned, mr. meredith began his efforts to enter the university of mississippi in january 1961. there was no involvement at l, directly or indirectly, by the government. in fact, i never even knew about mr. meredith having made an effort to try to enter the university of mississippi. in fact, the government did not become involved in the dispute in connection with the state of mississippi until september of 1962. mr. meredith had followed the question of his entrance into the university through the courts, through the district court, and through the circuit court. ultimately, it came to the supreme court in the hands of justice black.
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and justice black then asked the federal government and the department of justice to eer into the case. that was the first time the united states government in any way, or i, in any way, was involved in the case of james meredith. the question was whether we were going to follow the orders of the court of the united states. now, i don't believe that there's anybody here that would have done other than what we did, which was to try to enforce e ordersf the court. i had a number of conversations then with the governor of the state of mississippi in which i said that we were going to have to follow the orders of the court. there wasn't anything left that we could do under the circumstances. and he mentioned about the fact that maybe they could raise a fund here in mississippi and send m meredith to se university elseere in the country. [laughter] [applause] well, during that time
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i suppose i spoke to governor barne probably 25 times during that period of time from september to october. and president kennedy spoke to him two or three times. he had a number of suggestions. he felt that t situation was embarrassing to him politically that he had said that he wouldn't permit any negrto attend the university of mississippi, d he said that it wod be embarrassing if itccurred. i was working with the governor of the state of mississippi becauswe wanted to-- as i sa we wanted to avoid the use of force. wanted to aid the use of any troops or marshals. and so was trying to work out an arrangement with the governor of the state of mississippi whereby the orders of the cot would be uphd. he sugsted that if we cod come down with a few marshals and come here to oxford, that he would then step aside andermit him to come in. and i said, wellwe'd send him do with four marals, and thoughthat that wasn't enough.
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so i suggested-- or he suggested if could send 30 or 40 marshals. we compromed by saying maybe w. we then got into a question about-- he wanted the marshals to draw their guns. [laughter] you asd for thfacts. he asked if the marshals could draw their guns. i said that i was concerned about the question of pulling guns, and i thought that if they just arrived here, that maybe he could just step aside when he saw the 25 marshals. [laughter] he then called up, and i said, well, we'll ha the chief marshal pu his gun. [laughter] and so he called bacand said, i'll talk to my adviso about that.
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and he called back and said that all of the marshals would have to pull their guns. [laughter] frank thackston: i think the perception was what a snake barnett was. but he said it with good humor and not in any way critical of ross barnett, but it was critical of ross barnett. it was devastating to rossbarne. curtis wilkie: the peot falling out of their chairs. robert f. kennedy: and it was als stipulated that the gun had to be pointed at the governor and at the other public officials of the state of mississippi so that a picture could be taken when they would understand that they stepped aside before a superior force. [laughter] ed ellington: well, of coue, the riot itself was horrible. but some of the actions of governor barnett leading up to it were, like, cartoonish.
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they were buffoonery. but they were actually proposed. gerald blessey: this is absurd to think that the governor of a state would actually be asking thpresident of the united states to tell somebody to pull a gun on him. it's terrible. if it weren't so tragic, it would be funny. the tragedy of it is people died because of this in 1962. robert f. kennedy: now, people saying maybe you shouldn't have sent the marshals in, we sent the marshals down at his request because he said they were nessary for him to meet his responsibility and for the preservation of law and order. the alternative was to send troops in, even before mr. meredith came in, and take over the campus of the university of mississippi. i was reluctant to do that. president kennedy was reluctant to do that. the governor of the state of mississippi said it wasn't necessary. so i think it would have been deeply resented, not only here, but all over the rest of the country, if it came out that the governor of the state said, i can preserve law and order, it's not
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necessary to bringn thnational guard, it's not necessary to send in any troops, i can preserve law and order, and we have done it otherwise. so what i'd like to have is anybody suggest here at the university of mississippi for us to have done something different than we did do under the circumstances. now, maybe the circumstances as i've scribe them are different than you had thought they were. but under the circumstances, and particularly those of you attorney general of the united states, you take an oath of office. and one of the oaths of office is to uphold the laws of the united states and the decisions of the court. so it doesn't matter whether you approve of the decision of the court or disapprove of the decision of the court. but the fact is that it was an order of the court, and the governor of the state of mississippi said publicly he was going to pay any attention to the orders of the court. ellen b. meacham: kennedy knew that what he said would get coverage, that it would go off like a bomb in political circles in mississippi. i think it definitely changed the political landscape
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in mississippi a good bit. frank thackston: it made ross barnett a laughingstock. and i think it went a long way toward ross barnett's lack of success. i think he finished fourth in that governor's run, as i remember. gerald blessey: that was the nail in the coffin-- the political coffin-- for ross barnett. robert f. kennedy: i don't come down here and say that any of these difficulties-- in fact, que to theontrary-- exist in one section of the united states more than another. and i'm sure that, if i lived re in mississippi, d you came from elsewhere the country, based on our own background and how we've been brought up, we mht have different viewpoints than we have now, respectively. but i think that what we have to do is this is wt we're dealinwie
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tremendous problems ahead of us here in mississippi, in thetate of new york,and s and around the world. ed ellington: everybody seemed like to me they wanted to hear him speak and hear what he had to say. kennedy had charmed th. ethel kennedy: he was so happy to have the opportunity. it was such a relief. curtis wilkie: it was an attempt by young people at ole miss to say to the country, we're going to be a new and better generation of people than what you've been dealing with before. charles k. ross: i think it provided a spotlight. there was a lot of more work that the university had to do as it began to move forward, particularly in the late 1960s, 1970s, and '80s. i think it also has to be given credit, though,
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in that, for black and white students to work together at the university of mississippi, to actually have an event, that person come, give a speech, it be relatively positive, and both black and white students were instrumental in the planning, the thought process, and it actually happening, that in itself was a positive thing and something that paved the way for other kinds of student activities, working together, to move forward. reuben v. anderson: those gentlemen that were involved in the speakers bureau, they stood the risk of being ostracized themselves. to make mississippi something that they could be proud of.
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gerald blessey: it appealed to the good side, and the good side responded in the students. but that's one event. and it has to be replicated over and over again, and today we have too little of it. too many leaders today are like ross barnett. let's see if we can fool people with something that's not true but make it look like it is. william f. winter: some people said, well, it really didn't make any difference. did make a difference in seeing to it that we had that truth exposed for all to see and to let people make up their mind about which side they wanted to be on. donald r. cole: to make a change doesn't require you to change everybody. you change a few, and those few change a few more. that's how change actually takes place. [gentle music playing] ♪
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