KC Johnson

From Brown to Birmingham

Audio files:

President Kennedy, Attorney General Kennedy, and Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, 29 Sept. 1962, re: James Meredith and Ole Miss

Robert Kennedy: I think, Governor, that the President had some questions that he wanted answers to—

Ross Barnett: Well—

Robert Kennedy: —to make his own determination.

Barnett: That’s right. He wanted to know if I would obey the orders of the court, and I told him I’d have to do some . . . study that over. That’s a serious thing.

I’ve taken an oath to abide by the laws of this state and our state constitution and the constitution of the United States. And, 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. That’s what I’m up against—

President Kennedy: Oh Governor—

Barnett: —and I don’t understand why the court wouldn’t understand that—

President Kennedy: Governor, this is the President speaking.

Barnett: Yes, sir, Mr. President.

President Kennedy: Now it’s—I know that your feeling about the law of Mississippi and the fact that you don’t want to carry out that court order.

What we really want to have from you, though, is some understanding about whether the state police will maintain law and order. We understand your feeling about the court order—

Barnett: Yes.

President Kennedy: —and your disagreement with it. But what we’re concerned about is how much violence there’s going to be and what kind of action we’ll have to take to prevent it. And I’d like to get assurances from you that the state police down there will take positive action to maintain law and order. Then we know what we have to do.

Barnett: They’ll take positive action, Mr. President, to maintain law and order as best we can.

President Kennedy: And, now, how good is—

Barnett: We’ll have 220 highway patrolmen—

President Kennedy: Right.

Barnett: And they’ll be absolutely unarmed.

President Kennedy: Right—

Barnett: Not a one of them will be armed.

President Kennedy: Well, no—but the problem is—well, what can they do to maintain law and order and prevent the gathering of a mob and action taken by the mob? What can they do? Can they stop that?

Barnett: Well, they’ll do their best to. They’ll do everything in their power to stop it.

President Kennedy: Now, what about the suggestions made by the Attorney General in regard to not permitting people to congregate and start a mob?

Barnett: Well, we’ll do our best to keep them from congregating, but that’s hard to do, you know.

President Kennedy: Well, just tell them to move along.

Barnett: When they start moving up on the sidewalks and different sides of the streets, what are you going to do about it?

President Kennedy: Well, now, as I understand it, Governor, you would do everything you can to maintain law and order.

Barnett: I’ll do everything in my power to maintain order—

President Kennedy: Right. Now—

Barnett: —and peace. We don’t want any shooting down here.

President Kennedy: I understand. Now, Governor, what about—can you maintain this order?

Barnett: Well, I don’t know.

President Kennedy: Yes.

Barnett: That’s what I’m worried about.

President Kennedy: I see.

Barnett: I don’t know whether I can or not.

President Kennedy: Right.

Barnett: I couldn’t have the other afternoon. [27/9, when 2000 people, including students, farmers, and self-styled vigilantes, converged on Oxford intent on stopping Meredith from registering.]

President Kennedy: You couldn’t have?

Barnett: There was such a mob there, it would have been impossible.

President Kennedy: I see.

Barnett: There were men in there with trucks and shotguns, and all such as that. Not a lot of them, but some, we saw, and certain people were just—they were just enraged.

President Kennedy: Well, now, will you talk—

Barnett: You just don’t understand the situation down here.

President Kennedy: Well, the only thing is I got my responsibility.

Barnett: I know you do.

President Kennedy: This is not my order; I just have to carry it out. So I want to get together and try to do it with you in a way which is the most satisfactory and causes the least chance of damage to people in Mississippi. That’s my interest.

Barnett: All right. Would you be willing to wait awhile and let the people cool off on the whole thing?

President Kennedy: ‘Till how long?

Barnett: Couldn’t you make a statement to the effect, Mr. President, Mr. [Attorney] General, that under the circumstances existing in Mississippi, that there’ll be bloodshed; you want to protect the life of, of James Meredith and all other people? And under the circumstances at this time, it just wouldn’t be fair to him and others to try to register him—

President Kennedy: Well, then at what time would it be fair?

Barnett: Well, we, we could wait a—I don’t know.

President Kennedy: Yeah.

Barnett: It might be in two or three weeks, it might cool off a little.

President Kennedy: Well, would you undertake to register him in two weeks?

Barnett: Well, you know I can’t undertake to register him myself—

President Kennedy: I see.

Barnett: —but you all might make some progress that way, you know.

President Kennedy: [Laughs sarcastically.] Yeah. Well, we’d be faced with—unless we had your support and assurance, we’d be—

Barnett: I say I’m going to, I’m going to cooperate. I might not know when you’re going to register him, you know.

President Kennedy: I see.

President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., 19 Sept. 1963 in a meeting with other civil rights leaders, discussing the aftereffects of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four African-American children

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Now, the real problem that we face is this: the Negro community is about to reach a breaking point. There is a great deal of frustration and despair and confusion in the Negro community, and there is this feeling of being alone and not protected.

If you walk the street, you aren’t safe. If you stay at home, you aren’t safe; there is the danger of a bomb. If you’re in church now, it isn’t safe. So that the Negro feels that everywhere he goes, if he remains stationary, he’s in danger of some physical violence.

Now, this presents a real problem for those of us who find ourselves in leadership positions. Because we are preaching, at every moment, the philosophy and the method of non-violence. And I think I can say, without fear of successful contradiction, that we have been consistent at standing up for nonviolence at every point, and even with Sunday’s [the church bombing] and Monday’s [allegations of police brutality against demonstrators] developments, we continue to be firm at this point.

But more and more, we are facing the problem of our people saying, “What’s the use?”


President Kennedy: Now, it’s tough for the Negro community. On the other hand, what the Negro community is trying to do is a very important effort, which has implications all over the country. And I know that this bombing is particularly difficult.

But if you look at any—as you know—any of these struggles over a period across the world, it is a very dangerous effort. So everybody just has to keep their nerve. If the Negroes should begin to respond and shoot at whites, we lose.

I think [Alabama governor George] Wallace has lost. I heard a Southern senator with regards to civil rights say to me today, this is what I hear from him—that Wallace has made a bad mistake [in endorsing the brutal police response to the protests].

Now if you get . . . Wallace is in a bad position. And because you gentlemen and the community have conducted yourselves in the way you have, it’s with you. And of course when the police starts going for guns, they’ll shoot some innocent people, and they’ll be white, and then that will just wipe away all this support that’s built up.

There will be no—in the beginning, you can’t get anything. I can’t do very much. Congress can’t do very much unless we keep the support of the white community throughout the country—as a country. Once that goes, then we’re pretty much really down to a racial struggle, so that I think we’ve just got to tell the Negro community that this is a very hard price which they have to pay to get this job done.


Percentage African-Americans, 2000 Census

Percentage African-Americans, 2000 Census

Percentage Hispanics, 2000 Census

Percentage Hispanics, 2000 Census

Low pecentages of African-Americans, 2000 census

Low pecentages of African-Americans, 2000 census

States with Jim Crow laws

States with Jim Crow laws

Map, key civil rights events

Map, key civil rights events


Birmingham protests, 1963:


Martin Luther King, Jr., March on Washington speech, 1963:

Lecture handout:

CLASS Seminar: Race in American Politics

I. Legacy

1. Facts & Figures (census data; elective offices; increasingly multi-ethnic nature of U.S. population)

2. Legal Traditions (Constitution and 3/5ths clause; Dred Scott (1857) and slaves as property; Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and upholding “separate but equal”; NAACP confronts Jim Crow; path to Brown decision)

II. “Massive Resistance”

1. Reaction to Brown (what is “all deliberate speed”?; Eisenhower and origins of massive resistance; Southern defiance: Virginia and “private schools”; “Little Rock Nine”: sending of federal troops to Little Rock)

2. The Kennedy Administration and Civil Rights (limits of executive initiative: Kennedy’s political concerns—nature of early 1960s Democratic Party; significance of bureaucracy—Justice Department under RFK; James Meredith and integration of Ole Miss—administration response, national and international reaction; George Wallace and standing “in the schoolhouse door”—integration of University of Alabama)

III. Grassroots Activism

1. Obstacles (role of NAACP in civil rights activism; increasing sense that courts can’t do it alone; what about private discrimination? difficulties in Congress: tradition of filibuster—weakness of 1957 Civil Rights Act and significance of jury-trial amendment)

2. Confronting Discrimination (black religion and tradition of autonomy; organization of Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott; selection of Rosa Parks; emergence of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); 1960—Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): Greensboro and role of college students; Congress of Racial Equality (CORE): Freedom Rides and role of federal marshals)

3. After Ole Miss (riots and federal military intervention; Wallace and demagoguery; political costs; Birmingham and Operation “C”; role of Bull Connor; sit-ins, boycott, arrest of King; controversy over women and children protesters; church combing; public and media response)

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