James Thomas “Cotton Tom” Heflin (1869-1951) had two things he would say he was proud of during his political career: founding Mother’s Day and shooting a black man in an altercation. This is the story of the man who made Mother’s Day possible but also rose and fell in politics through his practice of bigotry.
The son of a slaveowner, he was commonly known as “Cotton Tom”, as one of his priorities was keeping the price of cotton high. Another was white supremacy. Such staunch feelings were not necessarily endemic to members of the Heflin family: his uncle, Robert Stell Heflin, had been a Radical Republican and his nephew, Howell Heflin, had a history of supporting civil rights before and during his career in the Senate.
Heflin’s rise to prominence began in 1901 when as a state legislator he participated in the Alabama constitutional convention. He successfully argued for excluding blacks from voting, stating, “…God almighty intended the negro to be the servant of the white man” (Feldman, 77). Heflin, a man who regarded himself as a staunch advocate for poor whites, and others at the constitutional convention also explicitly endorsed the idea that no individual black person could be equal or better than any individual white person. He simultaneously thought of himself as a friend of black people who accepted the place he wanted them to occupy in Southern society. As Secretary of State of Alabama, Heflin had endorsed the convict leasing system, which sold black prisoners (who were sometimes falsely convicted) to farmers and industrialists for the duration of their sentence and in some cases suffered worse working conditions than American slavery. In 1904, he was elected to the House, where he stood for expanding rural mail routes and stronger railroad regulation. In 1908, Heflin tried to introduce segregation to streetcars in Washington D.C., a proposal which was defeated. He received death threats over his proposal and was authorized to carry a gun for self-protection. In the wake of this controversy he got into a scuffle with Lewis Lundy, a black man who had confronted him on a streetcar. Accounts differ as to circumstances, but apparently Heflin, who was with Rep. Edwin Ellerbe (D-S.C.), saw Lundy cursing and drinking whiskey and asked him to stop. After Lundy shouted insults at him, the scuffle broke out, with Heflin throwing him out onto the platform of the St. James Hotel stop and shooting at him after he saw Lundy reach into his pocket for what he thought was a razor. He received a head wound, the cause which may have been a bullet wound, Heflin pistol-whipping him, or the impact from being thrown out of the streetcar. Heflin also managed to accidentally shoot a white bystander, Thomas McCreary, when the bullet ricocheted into his leg. Although he was indicted for assault with a deadly weapon, Heflin got the charges dropped after he paid McCreary’s hospital expenses and Lundy didn’t show up to testify against him. A lawsuit filed by Lundy appeared to go nowhere. Heflin thought himself justified, stating “Under the circumstances there was nothing more for me to do, I am glad to say I have not yet reached the point where I will see a Negro, or a white man either, take a drink in the presence of a lady without saying something to him. I did only what any other gentleman placed in similar circumstances would have done” (Langeveld). Others, including editorial writers from Southern newspapers, thought he had through his conduct unnecessarily escalated the situation.
On May 10, 1913, Heflin introduced his most lasting achievement in House Resolution 103, which requested the donning of white carnations by federal and elected officials to honor mothers. He stated that mothers are “the greatest source of our country’s strength and inspiration” (U.S. House). The following year, in response to the resolution’s popularity, he introduced as a law with Senator Morris Sheppard (D-Tex.) that the second Sunday of May be observed as Mother’s Day and requesting American flags be displayed in government buildings, homes, and offices “as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country” (U.S. House). After the legislation quickly passed, President Wilson signed the law. This is Heflin’s, and Senator Morris Sheppard’s, mark on every year in the United States. Despite Heflin’s successful advocacy for Mother’s Day, he voted against women’s suffrage, since he, as did many other Southern whites, had no interest in the U.S. officially granting suffrage to black women and believed the woman’s place was in the home. He was outright contemptuous of his Alabama colleague, Richmond Hobson, for endorsing women’s suffrage, mockingly suggesting he don a bonnet and a dress (Watson). Heflin was also a supporter of Prohibition, but voted against the Prohibition Amendment, since, perhaps thinking about the specter of federal intervention on the South’s Jim Crow policies, he chose to take a state’s rights position. He regularly indulged in conspiracy theories and wild accusations, including one in September 1914 that 13-14 members of the House were influenced in their votes by a German slush fund, an accusation an investigation in October 1917 determined to be false (Langeveld). In 1920, Alabama’s voters saw fit to elect him to the Senate to replace the late John H. Bankhead.
As a senator, he was an economic progressive, opposing the tax policies of the Harding and Coolidge Administrations and supporting federal intervention for relief of farmers. Heflin also continued his reputation as one of the staunchest racists on Capitol Hill, publicly protesting New York’s legalization of interracial marriage. When New York Senator Royal Copeland reacted angrily to Heflin, Heflin responded that if he ever traveled to Alabama for a presidential campaign that the people would lynch him. He also had a history of engaging in anti-Catholic rhetoric and in 1928, he refused to back the candidacy of Democrat Al Smith, stating “Alabama isn’t going for Al Smith. Neither is any other southern state, except possibly Louisiana. He is a Tammanyite, wringing wet and a Roman Catholic. I would vote against him for all three reasons” (Langeveld). Heflin endorsed Republican Herbert Hoover for supporting Prohibition and not being a Catholic, and indeed Alabama voters seemed to have a difficult time balancing their historic loyalty to the Democratic Party and their feelings on Catholics, and Smith only won the state by less than three points. By contrast, in 1924, Democratic nominee John W. Davis had won the state by over 40 points. As it turned out, Heflin’s electoral career did come to an end over prejudice, that is, his anti-Catholic prejudice. As he went on a speaking tour speaking against Smith during the 1928 campaign he was pelted with eggs, stones, and a quart bottle. Heflin railed against the Smith campaign that it was a Catholic conspiracy, “Wake up, Americans! Gird your loins for political battle, the like of which you here not seen in all the tide of time in this country. Get ready for this battle. The Roman Catholics of every country on the earth are backing his campaign. Already they are spending money in the South buying up newspapers, seeking to control the vehicles that carry the news to the people. They are sending writers down there from New York and other places to misrepresent and slander our State, all this to build a foundation on which to work for Al Smith for President. The Roman Catholic edict has gone forth in secret articles, ‘Al Smith is to be made President.’ ” (Bailey). He was punished by Democratic primary voters for his disloyalty in 1930 by turning him out in favor of John H. Bankhead II by about 50,000 votes. Heflin ran as an Independent and blustered about a Papal conspiracy within the Democratic Party to defeat him and the press as well as many political figures in Alabama denounced his antics. Grover Cleveland Hall wrote in the Montgomery Advertiser that he was a “bully by nature, a mountebank by instinct, a Senator by choice…Thus this preposterous blob excites our pity if not our respect, and we leave him to his conscience in order that he may be entirely alone and meditate over the life of a charlatan whose personal instinct and personal vanity are always of paramount concern to him” (Langeveld). Heflin tried to appeal his loss to the Senate in 1932, claiming massive voter fraud and delivering a five hour speech in which he again capitalized on racial prejudice, but the Senate easily dismissed his claim. His lifetime MC-Index score stands at a 9%. That year, he actively campaigned for Franklin D. Roosevelt and proved a supporter of the New Deal. As a reward for his support, Heflin was appointed special representative for the Federal Housing Administration. He unsuccessfully ran for his old House seat in 1934 and in 1937, he tried again to be elected to the Senate, but lost to Congressman Lister Hill. That same year, KKK Grand Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans publicly revealed that Heflin had joined the organization in the late 1920s. His time in electoral politics had come to an end.
In 1948, Heflin opted to stick with the Democratic Party rather than endorse the Dixiecrat candidate Strom Thurmond. Apparently a candidate being Catholic was more offensive to the staunch bigot than a candidate who supported civil rights! Then again, Republican Thomas Dewey was also a supporter of civil rights, having signed an anti-discrimination bill as New York’s governor, so Heflin may have been thinking that Jim Crow might have a better chance with Southern Democrats continuing to have a say even with a pro-civil rights Democratic president. He suffered dementia in his final years, which most notably manifested in a public incident when he tried to board a bus for Washington D.C. wearing a bathrobe. Heflin died on April 22, 1951.
“Cotton Tom” Heflin represented a different age in politics, but even in that age he stood out as particularly egregious in his bigoted demagoguery, and even Alabama voters who strongly backed Jim Crow tired of his antics. Yet, few people know that he more than any other politician is credited for the creation of Mother’s Day.
Again, Heflin. (1930, February 17). TIME Magazine.
Bailey, G. (2017, November 28). Worse than Roy Moore? History News Network.
Feldman, G. (2004). The disenfranchisement myth: poor whites and suffrage restriction in Alabama. Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press.
Langeveld, D. (2013, August 9). Thomas Heflin: even bad men love their mommas. The Downfall Dictionary.
Rice, A.S. (2014). The Ku Klux Klan in American politics. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
The Election Case of J. Thomas Heflin v. John H. Bankhead II of Alabama (1932). U.S. Senate.
The First National Celebration of Mother’s Day. U.S. House of Representatives.
Watson, E.L. James Thomas Heflin. Encyclopedia of Alabama.