The year 1912 was one of profound success for progressives and for Southern Democrats. Both groups found one of their own in spirit elected to the presidency, and among the adherents to Wilson elected for the first time that year from Texas were Sam Rayburn as well as Hatton William Sumners (1875-1962) of Dallas. An attorney by profession, he was a solid fit for the House Judiciary Committee, which he served on in his long career. Among the freshmen of the 63rd Congress (1913-15) he was the first to get a bill passed, which made Dallas a port of entry for customs.
In 1922, Sumners was the foremost figure in the House to speak out against the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, and he employed both racial and constitutional arguments against it. He invoked the fear of black men violating white women when he proclaimed, “Only a short time ago… their ancestors roamed the jungles of Africa in absolute savagery…[Y]ou do not know where the beast is among them. Somewhere in that black mass of people is the man who would outrage your wife or your child, and every man who lives in the country knows it” (Dray). Although the measure passed solidly in the House, it met defeat in the Senate as the will of its opponents was far stronger than that of its proponents. Sumners saw himself as a defender of states’ rights, but was far from a purist: while he opposed civil rights legislation time and again given such concerns as well as the 1924 Child Labor Amendment, he voted for the Prohibition Amendment, women’s suffrage, and most of the first New Deal. Sumners’ support for Prohibition may have had to do with his home district of Dallas, which was at the heart of Klan activity in Texas, with it having the highest membership of any major city, being the most brazen, and being known for reveling in its vigilante activity.
Sumners was, like Sam Rayburn, committed to work in his life. While Rayburn was married for less than three months, Sumners never married. With the Democrats taking over the House in 1930, he became chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and in this capacity he played a significant role in the passage of New Deal legislation as well as impeachments of several federal judges, but voted against Social Security. He would later serve as an even greater annoyance to President Roosevelt when he played a key role in defeating a prized initiative. In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presented his “court packing” plan and Sumners was having none of it. He reportedly said to his colleagues, “Boys, here’s where I cash my chips” (Monroe). On July 13th, he announced that he would keep the plan bottled in the committee. This plus the death of Senate Majority Leader Robinson the following day doomed the plan. Sumners’ record would increasingly move to the right.
After the 1938 midterms, Sumners’ record grew considerably more conservative as his Dallas district grew more so as well. Before 1939, Sumners’ MC-Index score averaged a 20%, but for his final four terms it averaged 63%, indicating a clear turn away from FDR’s policies. Although Sumners had soured on FDR expanding executive power in peacetime, in 1941, he sponsored the War Powers Act, granting FDR further executive powers to fight World War II. In his later years in Congress, Sumners seemed more distinctly concerned about racial violence, including lynchings. On multiple occasions he spoke out against the lax reactions of local sheriffs and states to lynchings. He regarded the failure of the sheriff of Madison, Florida to protect Jesse James Payne, a black prisoner in his custody from a lynching in 1945, as an admission of unfitness for duty. He wrote to Governor Millard Caldwell, “If these facts are true, or approximately true, this sheriff is not only guilty of a violation of official duty, of a cowardly act, but he is guilty of a direct assault upon the sovereignty of the state” (Dallas Historical Society). Sumners was both motivated out of a sense of justice as well as concerns over federal intervention in the South should racially motivated lynchings persist. Sumners opted to retire in 1946, but not before securing the passage of the Administrative Procedure Act, which governed how new federal regulations would be adopted. His successor would be the more conservative Democrat Joseph F. Wilson, and Wilson’s successor would be arch-conservative Republican Bruce Alger, one of the most vocal antagonists of President John F. Kennedy.
Dray, P. (2007, December 18). At the hands of persons unknown: The lynching of black America. London, UK: Random House Publishing Group.
Hatton Sumners papers, Inclusive: 1883-1963, undated, Bulk: 1911-1963. (2017, June 16). Baylor University.
Monroe, M.C. Sumners, Hatton William (1875-1962). Texas State Historical Association.
Personal letter to then Florida Governor Millard Caldwell. (1945, October 17). Dallas Historical Society, HWS Collection, D-116.