By David Kurlander
Republican Senators last Wednesday filibustered the Freedom to Vote Act, stymying Democratic efforts to bring voting rights legislation to the floor. On Now & Then, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman talked with Emory Professor Carol Anderson about the history of racist voting laws and the urgency for legislation today. Professor Anderson discussed the lingering impact of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution, which established the poll tax and set the precedent for Jim Crow. Fifty years after the “Mississippi Plan,” the fall of arch-racist Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo starkly exemplified the metastasizing bigotry of voter suppression.
“You know and I know what’s the best way to keep the n____ from voting,” Senator Theodore Bilbo told the crowd at the Greenville, Mississippi town hall days before the July 2nd, 1946 Democratic Senate primary. “You do it the night before the election. I don’t have to tell you any more than that. Red-blooded men know what I mean.”
Bilbo’s outburst was quoted in a June 30th New York Times editorial by Hodding Carter, a Greenville-based editor who won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize in editorials for a series of pieces on discrimination of Black and Japanese Americans. Carter, a longtime Bilbo adversary, let the Senator do the talking in his piece, reproducing Bilbo’s epithet-heavy screeds against Jews, newspaper editors, and—most viciously—Black Americans.
“The Man,” as Bilbo was known in Mississippi, was no stranger to race-baiting. He was a mentee of turn-of-the-century Governor James K. Vardaman, who had helped to write the 1890 Constitution and openly told the press that the plan was designed to “eliminate the n____ from politics.” Bilbo ascended to the governorship for a first four-year term beginning in 1915 and then another beginning in 1927. During this second tenure, he accused Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover of dancing with a Black woman while visiting Mississippi. Hoover responded by calling Bilbo’s assertion “the most indecent and unworthy statement in the whole of a bitter campaign.”
Elected to the Senate in 1934, Bilbo championed New Deal programs and became an odd bedfellow with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Joseph B. Keenan, a close Roosevelt advisor, wrote Bilbo in 1940, congratulating him on his reelection to the Senate: “I was delighted to learn of your splendid victory…assuring six years more of a real friend of liberal government.”
By the end of World War II, however, the tide had begun to turn against Bilbo. Powerful Republican Ohio Senator Robert Taft told Life Magazine in March 1946 that Bilbo was “a disgrace to the Senate” and even wrote a constituent to reveal that a group of concerned Senators had drafted a petition to oust Bilbo by a two-thirds vote, but that they had been stopped short because “he would revel in the publicity of a trial.”
The rise in congressional opprobrium towards Bilbo was accompanied by the growth of Black civil rights groups. After the Supreme Court ruled in the 1944 case Smith v. Allwright that all-white primaries were unconstitutional, three organizations—the Progressive Voters League of Mississippi, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Civil Rights Congress (CVC)—had made top priorities the entwined goals of registering Black voters for Mississippi primaries and ousting Bilbo from the Senate.
Bilbo recognized the new power of Black activism in the South. “Anyone caught in the act of Negro-organizing, Communist-supporting, racial-antagonizing acts should be horsewhipped, tar-and-feathered, and chased out of our beloved Southland,” he told a crowd in Iuka in May 1946. He had also abandoned his support of the Roosevelts, calling FDR’s widow Eleanor Roosevelt “the biggest Negro lover of the nation.”
Ultimately, about half of the 5,000 Black Americans registered to vote in Mississippi voted in the 1946 Democratic Senate primary. There were 350,000 Black residents of voting age in the state, many of whom had been barred from registering by literacy tests and outright intimidation. Bilbo won the primary by a margin of 35,000 votes.
On Primary Day, Medgar Evers, celebrating his 21st birthday and recently back from fighting in Europe, attempted to vote in Decatur and was chased from the polls by a large gang of armed white men. Evers would go on to become the Field Secretary of the NAACP and would be gunned down in his own Jackson driveway by a white supremacist in 1963.
Evers’ experience at the polls in July 1946 was far from unique. In the months following Bilbo’s primary victory, the NAACP and the CVC collected hundreds of affidavits from Black Mississippians who had been intimidated and beaten when they attempted to exercise the franchise. Another Black veteran, Etoy Fletcher, had unsuccessfully attempted to register in Brandon. After he was denied by the circuit clerk, four white men abducted him in a pickup truck, took him to the woods, and beat him with cable wire.
The CVC sent a complaint and a bundle of 48 affidavits to the Senate in September 1946. By then, Bilbo had admitted on Meet the Press his ties to the Ku Klux Klan: “No man can leave the Klan. He takes a oath not to do that. Once a Ku Klux, always a Ku Klux.”
Freshman Democratic Idaho Senator Glen H. Taylor, a former vaudeville star and country-and-western musician who believed in full Black equality, began over the summer to push for a formal investigation of Bilbo’s inflammatory campaign speeches. “The American people in every city in the country are reading these reports in the newspapers,” Taylor told his Senate colleagues. “They are observing that the United States Senate is completely unruffled and unperturbed…we cannot duck it, we cannot avoid it. It is before us.”
As predicted, Bilbo easily won re-election in November. Spurred by the CVC’s evidence and Taylor’s admonishment, the Senate Committee to Investigate Campaign Expenditures, a group of five conserative white men who were all opposed to voting equality, nonetheless voted on November 18th to open a probe into Bilbo’s intimidation of Black Mississippians.
The hearings began on December 2nd, 1946 at the Federal Building in Jackson, MS. Hundreds of Black would-be voters crowded the building in attempts to sign up to testify. Etoy Fletcher recounted his beating. Vernando Collier, the head of Gulfport’s NAACP branch, told of how a mob not unlike that which threatened Medgar Evers had dragged him out of the polling place and beaten his wife. The Senate committee listened as over 100 witnesses offered an avalanche of harrowing stories.
On December 5th, the final day of the hearings, Bilbo took the stand. “I am and always have been a States’ Rights Democrat,” he said in his opening statement, presaging the code words that would dominate segregationist politics in the coming decades. Later in the testimony, during which he used the n-word 79 times, he said, “I have no apologies to make when I say that I believe in white supremacy, and I believe in white control, and I believe in the superiority of the white race over the n___ race.”
Bilbo’s racism was not his only trouble. Back in Washington, just after the Jackson hearings closed, a separate Senate War Investigating Committee looked into a $25,000 slush fund Bilbo received from war contractors in exchange for Bilbo’s help in securing them contracts to construct Biloxi’s Keesler Army Air Field. Investigators also alleged that Bilbo had cajoled contractors into helping him to build an artificial lake, island, and secondary home (“Dream House No. 2”) on his 3,600-acre plantation.
This surreal second probe devolved into violence. On December 14th, 1946, Mississippi congressman and Bilbo rival Ross Collins pummeled a witness, Bilbo’s right-hand man Robert Gandy, after Gandy suggested that Bilbo had ultimately used the slush money to pay off Collins and other opponents.
Calls grew to vote to oust Bilbo, but his fate was still unsettled when the Senate came into session on January 3rd, 1947. On this first day of the 80th Congress, amid a filibuster from pro-Bilbo forces, Senator Taylor summed up Bilbo’s impact on Mississippi whites: “He offers to them the delicious sense of feeling superior to someone else, the cheap thrill of membership in a master race, the joy of kicking someone else around…this is the same sort of cheap thrill that was peddled in Germany by an ambitious house painter some ten years ago. We know that his doctrines and his methods brought no good to his people or the people of the world.”
Bilbo took a leave to receive treatment before the Senate decided whether to seat him; he had developed mouth cancer. He died in August 1947. Upon his death, an 18-year-old Black Ohio bluesman named Andrew Tibbs released his debut single on Aristocrat Records, “Bilbo Is Dead,” an ironic ballad that expressed mock-grief at the Senator’s demise: “Well you been livin’ in the big city, broke and had to get along / But you can hurry back to Mississippi, cause Bilbo is dead and gone.”
As Professor Anderson intoned at the end of her appearance on Now & Then, the voter suppression tactics of the contemporary GOP have their roots in the glaringly racist words and deeds of Senator Bilbo. In discussing the current Republican fixation with “massive voter fraud,” Anderson said, “Just like in the previous era, it is linking this corruption with those who are unworthy. It is linking this corruption with Blackness.”
For more on Bilbo and the Black fight for the vote in Mississippi, read John Dittmer’s Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. To learn more about the growth in public distaste toward Bilbo’s racist diatribes, read Robert Fleegler’s 2006 Journal of Mississippi History article “Theodore Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism, 1938-1947.”
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