Recently Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) stated positively about a constituent, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row”. While this can be taken to mean that she finds this particular constituent’s appeal so great that she would attend something she otherwise would find horrible and distasteful, the truth is that was a really dumb and careless statement to make. What’s more, there’s a connection between the Senate seat she currently holds and a particularly gruesome lynching.
In 1904, two black laborers in Doddsville, Mississippi, Luther Holbert and Albert Carr, employees at the Eastland plantation, got into a dispute over a woman. The white plantation owner, 21-year old James Eastland, got involved in the dispute and sided with Carr. They visited Holbert, who was with another sharecropper John Winters, telling Holbert to leave the plantation. While it is unknown who fired the first shot, a gunfight broke out, with Holbert shooting and killing Carr and mortally wounding Eastland, who returned fire, killing Winters. His brother, Woods Eastland, was enraged and consequently masterminded one of the worst lynchings in Mississippi’s history, offering $1200 to whoever brought Holbert in alive. Over 200 men and two packs of bloodhounds searched four counties for Holbert and his wife, with this posse killing a total of three black men they mistook for Holbert along the way. After Holbert and his wife were found, they were “were tortured with corkscrews that pulled out hunks of flesh. Their fingers were cut off, one by one, and distributed among the crowd as souvenirs” (Lacayo, 2000). They were both subsequently burned at the stake, with around 1000 people watching the savage spectacle, as the lynching had been scheduled and advertised in local newspapers. I should note here that Holbert’s wife had not participated in the gunfight.
Although Woods Eastland turned himself in when he was charged with murder, he was released when it became clear that no jury was going to indict him. No one faced any legal consequences for this barbaric deed. That winter, his wife gave birth to a boy, who he named after his late brother. Woods Eastland, already from a wealthy family, rose further in the community, becoming a part of the justice system as a district attorney. He became more politically connected as the years passed by and was a personal friend of Governor Paul Johnson. Upon the death of Senator Pat Harrison in 1941, Johnson proposed that he be appointed senator in his place. Woods, perhaps fearing the 1904 lynching would again be in the papers, declined and instructed his son take the appointment.
James Eastland would serve in the Senate until 1978 and was a leading voice for Jim Crow, often stating that blacks were inferior. As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he made the committee a “graveyard” for civil rights legislation, and his committee had to be circumvented for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to pass. Eastland, a friend of the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, connected the civil rights movement to communism. He also opposed the Great Society anti-poverty programs, Medicare, and federal aid to education while backing farm subsidies. Despite his reputation as one of the Senate’s leading foes of civil rights, many senators outside the South gave him high marks for collegiality. Ted Kennedy stated about him, “I always respected him, for both his knowledge and his civility as a senator” (Shogan, 1986). Regarding the lynching, Senator Eastland was embarrassed about it as he had shielded his own children from the story, and they didn’t learn of it until adulthood. After the 1960s, he chose to lay low on civil rights issues and even started to court the black vote, striking a personal friendship with Mississippi NAACP chair Aaron Henry and his office becoming responsive to the issues of the state’s black voters in his final term in office. However, his political moves came to little and too late. When Eastland asked Henry about whether he could earn black support for another term in 1978, he replied “Your chances of getting support in the black community are poor at best. You have a master-servant philosophy with regard to blacks”, which led the old man to break down in tears (Hunter, 1986).
Despite earning the support of President Carter and Henry for his reelection bid, a bid for a final term would have been a tough fight and not one the aging senator had the energy for, so he chose to retire. After his departure from the Senate, he didn’t apologize for his past stances yet remained friends with Henry and contributed substantial sums to the NAACP. Eastland’s successor was Thad Cochran, the first Republican to represent the state since Reconstruction, and Cindy Hyde-Smith is his successor.
Annis, J.L. (2016). Big Jim Eastland: The godfather of Mississippi.
Asch, C.M. (2008). The senator and the sharecropper: The freedom struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer. New York, NY: The New Press.
Hunter, M. (1986, February 20). James O. Eastland is Dead at 81; Leading Senate Foe of Integration. The New York Times.
Lacayo, R. (2000, April 2). Blood At The Root. Time Magazine.
Shogan, R. (1986, February 20). Ex-Mississippi Sen. Eastland Dies at Age 81. Los Angeles Times.