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Barnett to Kunstler: What If Your Daughter Married One?

Radical lawyer William Kunstler (Wiki bio) traveled frequently to Jackson during 1961 to represent Freedom Riders in various regards. In June he came to town to talk to Governor Ross Barnett (Wiki bio) on behalf of several Riders who were staging a hunger strike in Parchman, the state prison.

After Kunstler returned to New York, he related his conversation with Barnett to a reporter from the New York Post, which ran Kunstler’s transcript on June 28, just over a month since the Riders had started streaming into Jackson. That account was reprinted in the July 13 edition of the Petal Paper, a weekly published in Petal, MS (Google map), by P. D. East.

East, a Mississippi native, started the paper in 1953 and served as its editor and publisher, promoting his progressive ideas on race. By 1959 had lost all of his local subscribers and advertisers. He continued publishing until 1963, when he moved to Alabama.

Gov. Ross Barnett of Mississippi put the question bluntly: “Mr. Kunstler” he said, “what would you think if you daughter married a dirty, kinky-headed, field-hand nigger?”

Lawyer William Kunstler, of 511 Fifth Ave., had asked for a conference with the Governor in order to plead for Price Chatham, 30, and other hunger-striking Freedom Riders in Mississippi’s Parchman Prison. He replied to the Governor:

“I think such a step would be her own responsibility.”

“Mr. Kunstler,” said the Governor. “You’re no gentleman. If it were my daughter I’d disown her.”

Kunstler recounted his conversation with Barnett after his return here.

“The whole thing was so fantastic,” he said, “that I stopped in his outer office and tried to put it down word for word.”

The conversation, as Kunstler recalled it, continued:

Kuntsler: “I don’t think, Governor, that the Negroes involved in this fight are particularly concerned with marrying white women.”

Barnett: “That’s all the niggers want . . . There hasn’t been a single society yet where they integrated and the society hasn’t collapsed.”

Kunstler: “Governor, I think you are going to Hawaii for the Governors’ Conference. I think you’ll find a pretty integrated society there.”

Barnett: “Take the example of Egypt. That was a pure white society. But the niggers came up the Nile and they intermarried and integrated, and that caused the collapse of the greatest white civilization we’d know up to that time.”

At this point, Kunstler ventured the opinion that the Romans might have had something to do with the collapse of Egypt, but Barnett replied:

“I’ve never heard a white man give me an answer like that in my life.”

Kuntsler tried to resume an earlier discussion. He said his daughter had a right to select her own mate, “but with care, compatibility and love.”

Barnett observed: “That sounds like some of that Eleanor Roosevelt junk.”

Kunstler took a different tack.

“Isn’t it possible,” he asked, “that some Negroes have contributed a great deal to the world. I remember George Washington Carver. I recall his experiments with the peanut did a lot for the country.”

Barnett: “He was one of our good Nigras.”

Kunstler: “If there were any other Negro who eminently qualified for a government position, would you appoint him?”

Barnett: “I would not.”

Kunstler: “We have a Negro — Dr. Robert C. Weaver — sitting in practically a Cabinet position in Washington. Doesn’t that impress you in any way?”

Barnett: “No. He should never have been appointed. I didn’t vote for either Kennedy or Nixon because of their racial stands.

“You should never put a nigger in a position of responsibility. They’re not capable of it.”

After the interruption of a phone call, the Governor came back to the battle.

“What do you think of Kruschev?” he asked.

“I think he’s a pretty shrewd international pirate,” said Kunstler.

Said the Governor: “Do you know he’s taking these racial incidents down here which are provoked by outsiders and hurting us abroad?”

Replied Kunstler: “Maybe the treatment of the outsiders by the insiders is the real cause of Communist exploitation of the American racial issue.”

Barnett suddenly appeared worried. He placed an arm around Kunstler’s shoulder and said in confidential tones:

“Look, when you get out of this office, don’t you dare tell anyone sitting out there your racial theories, because we’ve had too much bad publicity and I don’t want you lynched here in the state capital.”

He remembered his hospitality, however.

“Now you be sure to come back and see us again — hear? And don’t forget to sing the guest book when you go out.” Kunstler didn’t forget.