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Mississippi Repeals State Song Honoring Racist Ex-Governor Ross Barnett

a photo of a man in a suit raising his hand while smiling in front of a crowd waving Confederate flags in a stadium
Gov. Ross Barnett formally dedicated “Go, Mississippi” as the state song before a crowd of 41,000 people waving Confederate flags at a University of Mississippi football game against Kentucky on Sept. 29, 1962. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

A roaring crowd of 42,000 waved Confederate flags in Jackson, Miss., and shouted their approval as Gov. Ross Barnett delivered a 16-word speech during halftime at a University of Mississippi football game against the University of Kentucky.

“I love Mississippi. I love her people, our customs. I love and I respect our heritage,” the segregationist Dixiecrat declared, drawing a chorus of rebel yells in reply.

Earlier that evening, on Sept. 29, 1962, the racist governor had learned that President John F. Kennedy had ordered federal troops to the Oxford campus to overcome Barnett’s attempt to block James Meredith of Kosciusko from becoming the school’s first Black student.

After Barnett’s 16-word speech, the UM marching band took the field and began performing “Go, Mississippi” by Houston Davis, with the governor formally dedicating it as the new state song. “Go Mississippi, you cannot go wrong,” the lyrics said. 

The next day, deadly violence swept the campus as white supremacist rioters who opposed integrating the campus clashed with the National Guard.

The state song took its tune from Barnett’s 1959 campaign jingle “Roll With Ross,” which included the lines, “Roll with Ross, he’s his own boss. For segregation, 100%. He’s not a moderate like some of the gents. He’ll fight integration with forceful intent.”

Last week, on April 14, 2022, Gov. Tate Reeves ended Barnett’s song’s 60-year reign as the state song by signing House Bill 453, replacing it with Steve Azar’s “One Mississippi.”

Several weeks before signing the bill, the Republican governor told the Associated Press he did not know if he would support changing the song because he was “focused on shooting basketballs” in high school and did not know it nor recall learning it.

‘Roll With Ross’

During his run for governor, segregationist Dixiecrat Barnett described segregation as a heaven-ordained institution. “The Negro is different because God made him different to punish him,” Barnett, the son of a Confederate veteran, said in 1959. (He remains the namesake for the Ross Barnett Reservoir between Madison and Rankin counties).

The Jackson Board of Realtors successfully pushed for the Legislature to adopt “Go, Mississippi,” a song it published that used Barnett’s campaign song with new lyrics, as the official state song in 1962. Though the reworked lyrics did not mention segregation specifically, the song declared that Mississippi “cannot go wrong” even as the state fought against federal desegregation orders.

James Meredith
In 1962, James Meredith became the first Black student to be admitted to the then segregated University of Mississippi, which he says was his first mission from God. U.S. Marshal James McShane, left, and John Doar of the Justice Department are seen here escorting him to class. Photo courtesy Marion S. Trikosko, U.S. News & World Report / Public Domain

“There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration. We will not drink from the cup of genocide,” Barnett said on Sept. 13, 1962, as he directed state officials go to go jail rather than integrate.

Despite his efforts to stop the integration of the University of Mississippi, Barnett failed, and James Meredith began attending classes, albeit with U.S. Marshal James McShane escorting him to class.

The Jackson Board of Realtors, which included members of Jackson’s white elite, openly supported Barnett’s segregationist aims and opposed civil-rights legislation. It donated to the Coordinating Committee For Fundamental American Freedoms, a project associated with segregationist State Sovereignty Commission designed to fight federal civil-rights legislation.

In a March 1964 resolution, the real-estate board criticized “so-called ‘Civil Rights agitators’” and made known its opposition to the Civil Rights Act, saying it “would destroy many of the rights and privileges guaranteed to the people of our constitution.”

That same year, Houston Davis, who released a new song with William D. Waugh called, “I Will Always Whoop It Up For Mississippi,” taking aim at the Kennedy family, including John F. Kennedy, who an assassin had killed four months earlier. The song also took a shot at Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who had fought Barnett’s attempts to block integration.

“Now the Kennedys, they took away our freedom but they’ll never take away our pride. And I’ll always thumb my nose at little Bobby and congratulate the devil when he dies,” Waugh and Davis wrote. “Mr. McShane, he flew down to Mississippi, just as ornery as a Yankee ever grows. But they made him room with James M. up at Oxford, and he had to wear a clothespin on his nose.”

In 1964, Houston wrote a campaign jingle for Lt. Gov. Paul Johnson’s campaign for governor called “Stand Up For Johnson” that, like “Roll With Ross,” referenced his support for segregation. Before the Oxford riots, Johnson had stood in the University of Mississippi’s Lyceum door to stop Meredith from entering.

‘Honor The Past While Embracing The Future’

The new state song, Steve Azar’s “One Mississippi,” refers to the state as “America’s music birthplace where rock and roll was made out of gospels and blues and that pure country tune.” 

“Round here’s where the Muppets grew up and potters and artisans inspired all of us. It’s kudzu walls and fall football, a Gulf Coast sunset and a Delta dawn. It’s simple nights, a smile on a face, taking that peaceful drive down the Natchez trace,” Azar’s lyrics say.

The song also spotlights the state’s Christian majority with the line, “And come Sunday morning, we profess our faith, we’re near the cross and His amazing grace. Oh yeah, now that’s Mississippi.”

Azar, born in Greenville, Miss., in the Delta, wrote the song in 2016 after then-Gov. Phil Bryant asked him to write an official bicentennial song for the state. 

House Bill 453 establishes a Mississippi State Song Committee that will choose additional state songs from a variety of genres, “including, but not limited to, country, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and gospel.” 

“The official songs of the State of Mississippi shall honor the past while embracing the future,” the bill said. The law requires the committee to present its recommendations for more songs by Dec. 31, 2022.

The legislation changing Mississippi’s old Confederate-themed state flag in 2020 similarly set up a commission to choose a new flag. Instead of presenting its recommendation to the Legislature, though, voters approved the state flag committee’s recommendation by referendum that November.

Reeves Declared ‘Confederate Heritage Month’

Reeves signed the bill retiring the old Barnett-inspired state song six days after declared April as Confederate Heritage Month for the third year in a row. When Mississippi Public Broadcasting reporter Kobee Vance asked him why he did so, Reeves appealed to tradition. He said the state’s governors have issued Confederate Heritage Month proclamations ever since former Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice, a supporter of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens, first began the practice in 1993.

“I signed the Confederate Heritage Month in the month of April in the same manner and fashion that the five governors that came before me, Republicans and Democrats alike for over 30 years have done that, and we did it again this year,” Reeves said. “I didn’t think this year was the year to stop doing that.”

Gov. Tate Reeves signed legislation changing the state song on April 14, 2022, six days after issuing a Confederate Heritage Month proclamation. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

On Twitter, former Gov. Ray Mabus, a Democrat who preceded Fordice, pointed out that only four governors before Reeves had signed a Confederate Heritage Month proclamation.

“I absolutely did not issue anything like this. It started with Fordice, an overt White supremacist,” Mabus wrote. “My question for Gov Reeves is ‘so what’ if 5 Governors have signed it. … Scores of Mississippi governors were ardent segregationists but the fact it was a “tradition” or the ‘status quo’ didn’t make it right or less hateful. The only heritages of the Confederacy as far as I can tell are slavery and treason.”

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