Mississippi’s Duo: James Eastland and John Stennis

 

Since former Vice President Joe Biden recently recounted his experiences with old arch-segregationists James Eastland and Herman Talmadge as examples of civility in the Senate, I think Eastland would be a good subject to cover now. He also positively spoke of the late Mississippi Senator John Stennis. I already covered Talmadge in a previous post about him and his father, so I will cover Eastland and Stennis, Mississippi’s senators during the civil rights era who served alongside each other for over thirty years.

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James Eastland and John Stennis, 1973.

James Eastland (1904-1986)

James Eastland grew up in the overwhelmingly black and impoverished area of Mississippi known as Sunflower County. Eastland’s father, Woods, was a cotton plantation owner and had a domineering influence over his life, pushing him towards a career in politics. The environment Eastland grew up in gave him no reason to object to the South’s societal order, and the racial violence in this area could be particularly brutal as the minority whites were more desperate to hold power than elsewhere in the state. In 1941, Senator Pat Harrison succumbed to cancer and Governor Paul Johnson appointed Eastland to fill the seat and with only one brief interruption in his service he served in the Senate until 1978. He accumulated political power in the state through strong organization, excellent constituent service, and his ability to unify the Hill and Delta regions of the state, which were often at ideological odds with each other. Eastland spoke out early and often for cotton and Jim Crow. In 1944, he spoke out against the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) and accused black soldiers of being cowardly, disobedient, and deserters and had “disgraced the flag of this country” (Zwiers, 25). Although in the white southern press his stance on the FEPC was well received, his rhetoric on black soldiers was widely condemned as an appeal to prejudice. On other issues, he often voted with the Conservative Coalition, particularly on labor issues and anti-communist legislation. Although Eastland often voted for conservative domestic legislation, he proved a staunch supporter of the foreign policy of President Truman. In 1955, he became the chair of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, a post which had been previously held by Joseph McCarthy, who he had voted to censure the previous year. Eastland became vigorous in his investigations of the Communist Party and later regretted his censure vote.

Eastland was one of the leading voices in the Senate against Brown v. Board of Education (1954), desegregation, and black suffrage. While some of his colleagues from below the Mason-Dixon line couched their arguments in non-racial terms such as Sam Ervin, Eastland was unabashed in his use of racist rhetoric. He was also in a unique position to combat civil rights legislation, as he was chair of the powerful Judiciary Committee, which under him was known as the “graveyard” such legislation. This led the NAACP’s chief lobbyist Clarence Mitchell to call him a “stinking albatross around the neck of the Democratic Party” (Atkins). Although his reputation nationally was as an arch foe of civil rights and a bigot, in the Senate he was known as trustworthy and courteous.  This was noted by John Averill of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote “Even those liberals who disagree most violently with Eastland paradoxically regard him with great respect and perhaps even a degree of affection” (Zwiers, 237).

During the 1960s, Eastland voted as a conservative, opposing most of the New Frontier and Great Society programs. On foreign policy, he voted against foreign aid and was one of 19 senators to vote against the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. In 1964, Eastland expressed his opinion to President Johnson that the disappearance of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner was a publicity stunt, but they were subsequently found to have been murdered. The national outrage over the killings played a part in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that Eastland and other segregationists fought tooth and nail against. Eastland was a major critic of the Warren Court and not just for its civil rights decisions: he voted for two constitutional amendments aimed at overturning Warren Court rulings on legislative apportionment and school prayer. Eastland also supported Nixon’s most controversial (and unsuccessful) Supreme Court nominees, Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell, men who Nixon believed would oppose the judicial activism of the Warren Court.

In 1966, Republican Congressman Prentiss Walker challenged Eastland for reelection and charged that he was not a true conservative, but a dealmaker with unpopular Democratic presidents. He attempted to link Eastland with the Great Society, but this approach didn’t work as he was one of the Democratic Party’s most visible opponents of the Great Society and he won reelection easily. In 1972, Eastland sort of got a free ride to reelection as President Nixon wasn’t interested in backing Republican candidates who challenged conservative Democrat incumbents. In 1976, Eastland along with his colleague John Stennis pushed voters to back Jimmy Carter, and in the first time since 1956 the state voted for a national Democrat for president. Eastland and other southern senators continued to exert influence during the Carter Administration and got President Carter to fully back the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. However, 1978 would mark the end for Eastland. Although he wanted another term, it was clear that by this time the black vote had become far more influential in the state and they weren’t inclined to vote for someone who had so vociferously opposed their political participation. Despite having developed a genuine friendship with Mississippi NAACP chair Aaron Henry and secured both his and President Carter’s support for another term, at 74 he was not up for a tough primary and eventually called it quits.

Although Eastland had no regrets about his career in retirement, he nonetheless made contributions to the Mississippi NAACP, likely out of his friendship with Henry. Although this isn’t much, it isn’t nothing.

John Stennis (1901-1995)

Stennis was a contrast to his predecessor, Theodore Bilbo, in that he wasn’t a demagogue. He was inclined, like Senator Sam Ervin, to couch his arguments in legalism as opposed to overt appeals to racial prejudice. This reflected his background in the legal profession, yet there is a dark story in this past. Before he was a senator, Stennis was a district attorney and in 1934 sought the death penalty for three black sharecroppers accused of murdering a prominent white farmer despite knowing their confessions had been extracted through torture. The prime evidence used against them was the confessions that prosecution witnesses admitted were extracted through brutal whippings and they were convicted. The verdict was appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled in Brown v. Mississippi (1936) that an involuntary confession extracted through police violence is inadmissible in court. The three men ended up pleading no contest to manslaughter and received prison sentences instead of risk another trial.

As a senator, Stennis was known as a major advocate of naval expansion and routinely favored expanding the military’s budget. Like all other Mississippi politicians, he signed the Southern Manifesto. Although on domestic issues he was often conservative, he staunchly opposed President Eisenhower’s efforts to enact free market reforms to agriculture, a stance common to the South. In 1960, he urged Mississippi electors to vote for John F. Kennedy, but they instead voted for conservative Democratic Senator Harry F. Byrd, who hadn’t even announced a run for president.

Stennis often opposed the initiatives of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and voted against key programs of the Great Society, such as the Economic Opportunity Act and Medicare. He also opposed every civil rights bill that came before him at this time. Stennis was quite hawkish on foreign policy, and in 1963 he was one of 19 senators to vote against the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. In 1965, the Senate adopted its first ethics code that was drafted by Stennis and he served as the first chair of the chamber’s Ethics Committee. In 1966, he voted for two constitutional amendments, one for permitting legislative districts to be based on factors other than population, and the other for permitting voluntary prayer in schools. In contrast to his stances on the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, Stennis often supported the stances of President Richard Nixon. A staunch hawk on Vietnam, he supported Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia in 1970 and his approach to the war in general. That same year, he stated in response to a Supreme Court decision on integration he would challenge candidates of the next presidential election to tell voters outside the South that “I’ll do to your schools what we’ve done to the schools in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana if I’m elected President”, predicting defeat for whoever said so (Illson). In 1972, he joined his colleague Eastland in opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, which he had opposed even in its 1953 watered-down form. In 1973, President Nixon proposed the so-called “Stennis Compromise” to special prosecutor Archibald Cox, in which instead of the Watergate tapes being publicly released, Stennis (who was known to be hard of hearing) would listen to the tapes and report a summary of what he heard. Cox’s refusal to accept prompted Nixon to order his firing, which resulted in the “Saturday Night Massacre”.

Stennis maintained a conservative record until the Carter Administration, when his record started to moderate. Despite this, he was even later in starting to vote for civil rights legislation: in 1979 and 1980 he was one of a handful of senators to oppose funding the Civil Rights Commission. Stennis finally voted for extending the Voting Rights Act in 1982, which happened to be just in time for his final reelection bid, which he won handily. It was easier for blacks to vote for him as opposed to Eastland, as he had not been a demagogue and was less vocal in his previous civil rights opposition. The following year, Stennis was one of four Senate Democrats to vote against MLK Day. On defense, he mostly supported President Reagan’s initiatives, as he backed increased spending on missiles and voted for aid to the Contras. In 1986, the Democrats won back the Senate, and Stennis served as Senate pro tempore.

Unlike his colleague James Eastland, Stennis got to serve throughout the entirety of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Although Reagan was the ultimate conservative politician, Stennis was far from on board with the agenda of him and his Republican supporters despite his conservative record during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon Administrations. His record on domestic issues became more palatable to the Democratic leadership and his overall political record in this period could be regarded as moderate as opposed to conservative and in his final two years it could even be regarded as moderately liberal. Some examples of liberal votes include his 1986 vote to defeat Jesse Helms’s (R-N.C.) amendment killing Washington D.C.’s law prohibiting insurers from denying coverage to people with AIDS, his 1987 vote against confirming Robert Bork to the Supreme Court despite his prior support of conservative justices, and his 1988 votes against exempting religious institutions from Washington D.C.’s anti-discrimination laws for gays and lesbians, against a bill permitting the death penalty for drug lords who order murders, and against a workfare proposal for welfare. He didn’t run for reelection, having served over forty years in the Senate.

References

Atkins, J. Book review: ‘Big Jim Eastland’. Clarion Ledger.

https://www.clarionledger.com/story/magnolia/books/2016/11/06/book-review-big-jim-eastland/93097932/

Illson, M. (1970, January 16). Southern White Leaders Voice Anger and Dismay Over Integration Ruling. The New York Times.

Retrieved from

https://www.nytimes.com/1970/01/16/archives/southern-white-leaders-voice-anger-and-dismay-over-integration.html

Zwiers, M. (2015). Senator James Eastland: Mississippi’s Jim Crow Democrat. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University State Press.

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