Mississippi’s history on race has been, to put it lightly, unfortunate. It has long had the reputation as the most racist state, and numerous figures who have come from this state have reinforced this reputation: Jefferson Davis, Theodore Bilbo, James Eastland, and John Rankin come to my mind. It was a Mississippi senator, James Z. George, who pioneered the model for the Jim Crow constitution in 1890, the sort that would be adopted by other Southern states. Not too long after this constitution was adopted, the Progressive Era began, and it didn’t skip Mississippi. In fact, Mississippi was the first to adopt two measures championed by progressives: the party primary in 1902 and Prohibition in 1908. The Progressive Era’s most notorious race baiter in Mississippi was James Kimble Vardaman (1861-1930).
After the 1890 Jim Crow constitution was adopted, the political division in Mississippi was between the Delta planters and the Hill people. Both groups supported Jim Crow, but for different reasons. The Delta planters wanted a steady supply of cheap labor, thus laws that maintained a permanent second class were to their benefit but the racial violence that came in socially maintaining this second class was not. Although blacks had lost many freedoms gained after the War of the Rebellion by the 1890 constitution, one they retained was the freedom to leave, and leave many did for the North to escape the terror that existed should a white person perceive a black person as stepping out of line. Thus, wealthy plantation owners were willing to give certain enticements to blacks to stay and work. In Washington County, for instance, there were black policemen, black judges, and the best schools for blacks in the state (PBS, Percy). The Hill people, who were poor to working class, saw blacks as economic competition and were more likely to employ violence, especially in areas where they were a minority, making the racial situation seem more “desperate” to them. They found a champion in Vardaman, who they affectionately called “The Great White Chief”. He opposed corporations, railroads, tariffs, banks, and blacks. Vardaman stated on the 1890 Mississippi Constitution, “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter…Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics. Not the ‘ignorant and vicious’, as some of the apologists would have you believe, but the nigger…Let the world know it just as it is…. In Mississippi we have in our constitution legislated against the racial peculiarities of the Negro…. When that device fails, we will resort to something else” (McMillen, 42). Yet, he would claim himself to be their best friend in the sense that he thought himself as being honest about what was expected of them in society.
In 1903, he ran for governor on an explicitly white supremacist platform and won. During his time as governor, he pushed for restrictions on child labor, ended the convict leasing system, and advocated for segregated street cars. Contrary to his rhetoric on lynching, Vardaman in practice used his authority to prevent lynchings. He could be largely thought of as a practitioner of what historian C. Vann Woodward called, “Progressivism – for whites only” (Lerda, 72). He was one of the worst racists on his rhetoric. This included suggesting genocide should Jim Crow fail by stating, “If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched” (PBS, Vardaman). Vardaman also opposed education for blacks beyond basic moral instruction and menial labor, and denounced President Theodore Roosevelt for hosting Booker T. Washington for dinner. He stated on Washington, “I am opposed to the nigger’s voting, it matters not what his advertised moral and mental qualifications may be. I am just as much opposed to Booker Washington, with all his Anglo-Saxon reenforcement, voting, as I am to voting by the cocoanut-headed, chocolate-colored typical little coon, Andy Dotson, who blacks my shoes every morning. Neither one is fit to perform the supreme functions of citizenship” (TIME, 2). His rhetoric contributed to an environment in which Mississippi ranked #1 in the nation for lynchings between 1877 and 1950. Vardaman also supported repealing the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution and vetoed a bill funding for the Mississippi Normal Institute, which educated black teachers (Sansing).
In 1911, Vardaman ran against House Minority Leader John Sharp Williams for the Senate, but the latter narrowly prevailed. However, after Senator Anselm McLaurin died, he tried again but was defeated for the interim election by LeRoy Percy, a lawyer who had represented railroads and banks and regarded as a representative of the wealthy planter class in the Delta. Although a hit with his Senate colleagues, he was not so with working class whites, and accusations of bribery employed by the Percy forces marred the election, with State Senator Theodore Bilbo admitting to taking a bribe from the Percy forces, claiming he took the money to prove the corruption of the Percy forces (Hill). Vardaman got another shot at it in 1913 was exactly the sort of person that Vardaman was good at running against. He thought of himself as representing working class whites against both the wealthy planter class and against black competition, and they were highly receptive to his message. He was elected to the Senate in 1912 and was in his first four years a strong supporter of President Woodrow Wilson. Vardaman was a strong supporter of a whites only immigration policy and repeatedly voted against permitting other racial groups to enter.
Bark Worse Than Bite
On one hand, Vardaman engaged in vile racist rhetoric and supported a system that rendered blacks second class citizens in every conceivable way. On the other hand, he was responsible for the abolition of the convict leasing system as governor and worked to prevent lynchings by traveling to areas where lynchings were threatened accompanied by the National Guard. The former, in which prisoners were leased to businesses and farms, had dreadful conditions that could be worse than slavery. Vardaman also as a senator cast some votes that history has vindicated. He was the only federally elected official from Mississippi to support women’s suffrage (although he also backed exempting black women from it). He would write in his newspaper on the subject, “Women’s Suffrage is right. The influence of women at the ballot box is the only thing which will save this world from Hell. It is coming” (Vardaman). Vardaman had supported freedom of the press during wartime when calls for censorship were strong and opposed the Sedition Act of 1918, which was the most severe restriction on freedom of speech in the nation’s history. However, his undoubtedly politically fatal vote was when he was one of six senators, and the only elected official from Mississippi, to vote against American participation in World War I. In 1918, he lost renomination to former supporter and Wilson loyalist Congressman Pat Harrison. His MC-Index score was an 18%.
Attempted Comeback and End
By 1922, the war and the fervor behind it was over, and Vardaman came close to a comeback despite opting to have surrogates make speeches for him instead of going at it himself and seemed much subdued (he may have been developing early onset Alzheimer’s disease) and had his followers, such as Theodore Bilbo, delivering speeches for him (Hill). However, the state’s establishment worked overtime to ensure that the fairly boring Congressman Hubert Stephens clinched the nomination. His spiritual successor was Bilbo, who proved his equal in the viciousness of his racial rhetoric and grossly inferior on principles and ethics as unlike Vardaman, he was corrupt, which contributed to his later downfall. Vardaman and his wife then moved in with one of their children in Birmingham, Alabama, and he spent his last years in a state of senility, dying in 1930. Vardaman’s son, Vardaman Jr., would serve in various government positions, including as a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors from 1946 to 1958.
What is to make of Vardaman? Although Vardaman probably wouldn’t have thought this himself, he is something of a contradiction. Despite his extremely racist rhetoric calculated to win votes and his reenforcing of Jim Crow, in some ways he demonstrated tremendous courage and was ahead of his time. There were certain key issues in which he stood alone among federally elected Mississippians. Vardaman was alone in his opposition to World War I and in his support for women’s suffrage. He was the greatest advocate for free speech during wartime from his state and fought for children to be educated instead of having to work. Vardaman ultimately is demonstrative of how complicated historical figures can be.
Cresswell, S. (2004, June). Was Mississippi a Part of Progressivism? Mississippi History Now.
Hill, R. The White Chief – James K. Vardaman of Mississippi. The Knoxville Focus.
James K. Vardaman. PBS.
Lerda, V.G. (2019, September 11). Southern Progressivism in Historical Perspective: the 1890s and the 1990s. RSA Journal 11.
LeRoy Percy. PBS.
McMillen, N.R. (1989). Dark journey: black Mississippians in the age of Jim Crow. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
Sansing, D.G. (2017, July 11). James K. Vardaman. Mississippi Encyclopedia.
The South: The Authentic Voice. (1956, March 26). TIME.
Vardaman, J.K. (1919, June 12). Woman Suffrage. Vardaman’s Weekly.