Sunday, September 18, 2011

Theodore G. Bilbo: race to the end

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Theodore Gilbert Bilbo's earlier career has been virtually overshadowed by the hateful rhetoric he embraced during his time as a United States Senator. Long before his race baiting ways started to eat away at his political strength, however, Bilbo had run afoul of bribery accusations in state level positions. In each bribery matter, he took a dubious but effective defense: admitting to taking a bribe, but maintaining that he only did so to expose corruption by his foes.

The first incident happened in 1909, a year after Bilbo started serving in the Mississippi state senate. Senators for Congress were still chosen by the state legislature, and with the death of Senator A.J. McLaurin in December of 1909 it was up to Bilbo and his compatriots to choose a replacement. The choices came down to former Governor James K. Vardaman and planter Leroy Percy, and after a protracted battle Percy was finally chosen. In March of 1910, a grand jury indicted planter L.C. Dulaney with the charge of tendering a bribe to Bilbo. It declined to indict Bilbo for receiving the bribe, but a resolution still appeared in the the senate to expel Bilbo.

Bilbo went on a swift offensive, explaining that Dulaney gave him $645 to support Percy over Vardaman. Bilbo said he took the money, but gave it to a local minister with a statement of facts as a way of obtaining proof of irregular methods in the election. He said the transaction was supposed to occur in a hotel room where a witness would be handy, but it ended up happening in another room instead.

Bilbo's innocence depended almost entirely on his word, and even this did not carry much weight considering that the minister denied having advance notice of the bribery or taking part in a stakeout in the hotel. The state senator maintained his innocence, but added the caveat asking voters to wait until all the evidence was in. "At this juncture of the greatest fight in the history of the state for a clean government, I feel that I ought to say to the people of Mississippi that the efforts of the politicians and corporate interests in attacking my reputation will prove a miserable failure, for the truth will prevail," he said.

On April 14, the senate took a vote to expel Bilbo. It fell along party lines and was 28 to 15 in favor - one short of the three-fourths majority needed to carry the action out. The Vardaman supporters left the chambers in protest after the vote, leading to a lopsided 25-1 vote favoring a resolution urging Bilbo to resign and criticizing the decision to not reveal the evidence of bribery until after the nomination as "utterly unexplainable and absolutely incredible." However, another resolution unanimously adopted the idea that the election was free from undue influence. Bilbo remained in the senate for the rest of his term, and Dulaney was acquitted at trial in November. The fallout from the matter continued into the next year. In July of 1911, former prison warden J.J. Henry hit Bilbo in the face with the butt of a pistol after Bilbo refused to apologize for remarks about Henry's character; Henry had been one of the witnesses before the committee investigating the bribery allegation.

The second accusation of bribery arose in December of 1913, when Bilbo was the lieutenant governor of Mississippi. He and state senator G.A. Hobbs were indicted on the charge of soliciting a bribe from Belzoni resident Steve Castleman to influence a bill in 1912 to create a new county out of parts of Yazoo, Holmes, and Washington counties. At the trial, Chicago attorney Ira M. Sample testified that Bilbo and Hobbs approached him with the idea of getting legal action against a certain Illinois lumber corporation dismissed in exchange for $50,000 for Bilbo and $5,000 each for the Mississippi attorney general and two special attorneys. Castleman said he agreed to pay $2,000 to Bilbo and Hobbs to support the county bill, and gave $200 to Hobbs in a Vicksburg hotel. The circumstances of the bribe were curiously similar to those a few years earlier, and the outcome was nearly identical. Hobbs claimed that he accepted the bribe to entrap Castlman and was acquitted at trial. Bilbo was also exonerated in July of 1914.

Bilbo was born on a Poplarville farm in October of 1877. He attended Peabody College in Nashville as well as the law department of Vanderbilt University and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He made a living as a high school teacher for five years and started practicing law in 1912, four years after he was admitted to the bar. If his later crusade was all about race, Bilbo's early work was more related to class. He often defended hill country farmers against the wealthier farmers from the Mississippi River Delta region.

The first political bid Bilbo made was in 1903, when he unsuccessfully ran for circuit court judge. Five years later, he started work in the state senate as a Democrat. He stayed there through 1912, when he became the lieutenant governor. Bilbo not only weathered the two bribery scandals, but won the gubernatorial election at the end of his time as lieutenant governor in 1916. During his first term, the state established a tuberculosis sanatorium; eliminated public hangings; founded a state board of embalming, state tax commission, and fish and game commission; and advanced the construction of highways. In another violent incident, the state's assistant attorney general, Walter Dent, knocked Bilbo down during a fistfight in August of 1919; the scuffle was a result of remarks in a newspaper attributed to Bilbo. At the end of his first term in 1920, he ran unsuccessfully for the House of Representatives.

Bilbo hit a rough patch after this term. In 1922, a woman named Frances Birkhead accused Bilbo's successor, Lee Russell, of seduction. It was akin to sexual harassment, and Bilbo's name came up as the person whom Governor Russell allegedly asked to settle the matter involving his stenographer. Bilbo had no desire to appear as a witness, and ignored the summons to court. Russell was ultimately acquitted, but Bilbo was arrested for contempt of court in February of 1923. He was convicted and sentenced to serve 30 days in jail and pay a $100 fine, although the term was later reduced to 10 days and the fine remitted. From his cell, Bilbo announced his candidacy for a renewed gubernatorial term.

This effort, naturally, was not very successful. Bilbo was again elected governor for a term starting in 1928, but met with considerably more difficulty the second time around as the Mississippi treasury was hit by financial setbacks. In April of 1932, a judge declared 217 pardons issued during Bilbo's term null and void since they had been issued without proper notice, but prison trustees refused to rearrest the newly freed men. Economic policies benefiting white farmers became common. These were one of the more subtle forms of racism Bilbo embraced. In October of 1928, he criticized Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover for allegedly dancing with a black woman during a flood relief visit to the state the previous year. Hoover replied by saying that it was mere rumor, and that if the voters made a decision based solely on the accusation it would "forever be a most infamous blot on the record of the state of Mississippi." Despite the law against public hanging passed in his first term, Bilbo took a rather more relaxed attitude toward lynchings. After a mob took Charley Shepherd, a black man accused of raping and murdering an 18-year-old girl, and burned him at the stake in 1929, Bilbo publicly declared his opposition to an investigation into the culprits. "I have neither the time nor the money to investigate 2,000 people," he said. Bilbo said no National Guard protection had been requested, or it would have been afforded for Shepherd. To his credit, Bilbo did order such a guard for a black man accused of murdering a white planter in 1931. However, this was likely done with reluctance; only a few months later, the North American Review quoted him as saying, "No colored man is worth calling out the National Guard to protect."

After leaving the governor's office for a second time, Bilbo made another unsuccessful run at the House. In a bizarre development, he managed to get a job with the Farm Adjustment Administration "assembling current information records for the Adjustment Administration from news, magazines, and other published sources." Translated, this meant that Bilbo would be paid to take clippings from newspapers and other published sources. He left the $6,000 post - a salary only $2,500 less than that of a senator - to start a campaign for Senate in February of 1934. In a surprise upset, he took the Democratic nomination from 22-year incumbent Hubert D. Stephens. The party dominated politics in the South to such a degree that a primary victory was a foregone conclusion for the general election; sure enough, Bilbo easily won victory in November of 1934.

Bilbo would stay in the Senate for two terms, chairing both the Committee on the District of Columbia and the Committee on Pensions. He became a strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal initiatives, seeing them as a good way to relieve poverty in Mississippi. Midway through his term, he and his bride of 34 years went through a messy breakup. In 1937, a divorce was granted and his ex-wife vowed to use some of the $20,750 she received in the deal to fund a Senate campaign opposing him. In his second term, Bilbo spoke against the idea of having the draft brought down to the ages of 18 and 19. The conflict would be a prolonged one, he felt, and it would be more prudent to call up men with more experience. "I am not opposed to taking 18 and 19 year old boys and training them, but I could never give my consent to putting them into combat service at this tender age," he said.

More than anything, however, Bilbo would become known for his vile, single-minded, and backward attitude on racial relationships. In one of his most shocking proclamations, he said the white race was doomed to decadence if it was to live alongside the black race; he said he would attach an amendment to a federal emergency relief bill to provide $250 million for the transportation of the country's black residents to new homes in Liberia. Worst of all, Bilbo turned to the Nazi regime in Germany as a model. "It will be recalled that Hitler, in his speech on April 9 in Vienna, gave as the basis of his program to unite Austria with Germany, 'German blood ties,'" he said. "Germans appreciate the importance of race values. They understand that racial improvement is the greatest asset that any country can have." Bilbo claimed that he had two million signatures from blacks who were willing to make the move and thought millions more would join in. Bilbo's relocation ideas extended to the nation's capital, with a proposal that 10,000 people be removed from alley homes. "We predict he will be a curse to his party and to his capital. Indeed he is one already," one newspaper commented. "He is one of the worst blights ever to strike our town, and we hold his party and this administration responsible for inflicting this socially benighted man on the people of Washington."

In 1938, Bilbo filibustered a proposed anti-lynching bill. He said violence and race riots would accompany the passage of such a measure, and referred to its supporters as "mulattoes, octoroons, and quadroons." In May of 1943, he said he was prepared to repeat the effort on a bill that would make it unlawful to require a poll tax to vote in a federal election. Such a tax, common in several southern states, was designed to exclude black voters but Bilbo saw the matter as one of states' rights. "I will feel that I am just as much a soldier as a marine on Guadalcanal or a private on Attu Island," he said, admitting that he would yield if essential war issues needed discussion.

In June of 1945, Bilbo filibustered the Fair Employment Practices Commission, saying he felt it was an attempt to fuse races and garner the black vote. By this point, with the war in Europe concluded and the Pacific conflict drawing to a close, the patience for Bilbo's hateful outbursts was growing thin. The Veterans Committee for Equal Rights demanded his impeachment due to his frequent statements against religious and racial equality. The Jewish War Veterans of the United States accused him of promoting divisiveness and violating the Constitution. The Committee of Catholics for Human Rights declared his conduct "a chilling deterrent to the worldwide belief that America is the symbol of democratic freedom and human rights."

Bilbo's conduct signaled the end of his career in Washington. In April of 1946, the Senate established a special committee to investigate election practices. In July, Bilbo won the Democratic nomination for a third term in the Senate. Two months later, a group of black voters charged that Bilbo "conducted an aggressive and ruthless campaign...with the effectively deprive and deny the duly qualified Negro electors...of their constitutional register and vote." Glen H. Taylor, a liberal Democrat from Idaho, had already requested the committee to look into Bilbo's inflammatory speeches in June.

In August of 1946, Bilbo admitted that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, although he said he had not attended any meetings since his inaugural one since he was "not in sympathy with some things in it." He disputed a quote attributed to him in which he allegedly said that "the way to stop Negroes from voting was to start from the night before" with a clarified, perhaps more horrible statement that kept the intent intact: "The best time to keep a nigger away from a white primary in Mississippi was to see him the night before."

There was little question that Bilbo had urged intimidation and other unsavory practices in the 1946 primary. In a radio campaign, he had called upon
"every red-blooded Anglo-Saxon man in Mississippi to resort to any means to keep hundreds of Negroes from the polls in the July 2 primary. And if you don't know what that means, you are just not up to your persuasive measures." In one well-publicized incident, a black war veteran was beaten for trying to register to vote in Mississippi. The National Negro Council denounced Bilbo's requests as "more diabolical than Hitler in his heyday."

In December of 1946, the committee convened for four days of hearings on Bilbo's exhortations prior to the primary. Over 100 witnesses, about two-thirds of them black, told about the restrictions on registration and voting. It wasn't enough to knock Bilbo from his perch. On January 3, 1947, the majority report of the Campaign Expenditures Committee determined that Bilbo's financial conduct was not an issue, finding instead that his anti-black crusade had been a response to "outside agitation" such as the national press, and determined that he was eligible for a seat in Congress. The minority report took a decidedly different tack. It charged Bilbo with violating the Constitution, federal criminal code, and Hatch Act, and with vigorously encouraging state officials to do the same.

It may have marked another close call for Bilbo, but the civil rights violations were not the only matters he was under investigation for. In November of 1946, the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program launched a probe into his relationship with war contractors. This committee was less sympathetic toward the senator, and uncovered a wealth of unscrupulous activity. Over the course of the war, Bilbo had accepted from war contractors a new Cadillac, a swimming pool, the excavation of a lake around his "dream house," the painting of this mansion, furnishings for a second home, and overall a total benefit of between $57,000 and $88,000. The day before the determination that Bilbo had not violated civil rights laws, six of nine members of the defense committee agreed that his connections with war contractors were questionable.

Along with the first Republican majority in 14 years, it was enough to stall Bilbo's seating in Congress. Taylor asked the legislature to bar Bilbo from holding a seat until the Committee on Rules of Administration could review his conduct. The Senate voted 38-20 to table the resolution, but the matter turned out to be something of an anticlimax. Though Bilbo would continue to receive his government salary, he returned to his home state for an emergency surgery.

Somewhere along the way, Bilbo found time to put together a hateful treatise entitled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, which continued to embrace the notion of deporting the nation's black population. Ironically, the man who had spewed so much hatred died in August of 1947 following three surgeries for mouth cancer, although the official cause of death was given as heart failure following a surgery to tie off a blood clot. A life size bronze statute of Bilbo was dedicated in the Mississippi Capitol rotunda in 1954, but proved an embarrassment as the civil rights movement progressed. In 1982, Governor William Winter quietly ordered that the statue be removed to an out of the way meeting room. This room is now frequently used by the Legislative Black Caucus, and some members cheekily hang their coats or hats on the statue's outstretched arm.

Sources: The Political Graveyard, The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, National Governors Association, Mississippi History Now, U.S. Senate Art and History Home Page, "Bribery Charged in Mississippi" in the Spartanburg Herald on March 29 1910, "Preacher Didn't Confirm Bilbo" in The Day on April 2 1910, "Look Into Bilbo's Record" in the News and Courier on April 2 1910, "Bilbo is Forced to Resign From the Mississippi Senate" in the Spartanburg Herald on April 15 1910, "Senatorial Primary Called" in the New York Times on April 17 1910, "Real Money in Bribe Trial" in the Boston Evening Transcript on Nov. 30 1910, "Senator Bilbo is Severely Beaten" in the Spartanburg Herald on Jul. 7 1911, "Indict State Officials" in the New York Times on Dec. 3 1913, "Attempted Bribery Alleged in Big Case" in the Pittsburgh Press on Jul. 8 1914, "Bilbo Acquitted By Jury" in the News and Courier on Jul. 10 1914, "Mississippi Governor Knocked Down in Fight" in the Evening Independent on Aug. 9 1919, "Suit Against a Governor is On" in the Lawrence Journal-World on Dec. 7 1922, "Russell Acquitted of Woman's Charge" in the New York Times on Dec. 12 1922, "Ex.-Gov. Bilbo Arrested For Contempt" in the New York Times on Feb. 7 1923, "Bilbo to Run Again" in the Palm Beach Post on Apr. 17 1923, "Reduces Bilbo Sentence" in the Evening Independent on Apr. 20 1923, "Hoover Denies Charge Made by Governor Bilbo" in the Washington Reporter on Oct. 20 1928, "Governor Refuses to Order Inquiry into Negro Lynching" in the Meriden Record on Jan. 2 1929, "National Affairs: People vs. Shepherd" in Time on Jan. 14 1929, "Troops to Guard Mississippi Negro Being Held as Killer" in the St. Joseph Gazette on Oct. 23 1931, "Prison Trustees Refuse to Carry Out Their Orders" in the Herald-Journal on Apr. 14 1932, "Bilbo to Gauge Farm Act Foes by the Shape of Their Heads" in the Gettysburg Times on Jun. 23 1933, "Ex-Governor Quits Post; Eyes Senate" in the Pittsburgh Press on Feb. 23 1934, "Bilbo Rockets Into U.S. Senate" in the Herald-Journal on Sep. 20 1934, "Wife Contests Divorce of Sen. Bilbo of Miss." in the Lewiston Daily Sun on May 19 1937, "Ted Bilbo is a Coward" in the Afro American on Jan. 29 1938, "Bilbo Sees Decadence of Pure Anglo-Saxon Race" in the Lewiston Daily Sun on Mar. 2 1938, "News Behind the News" in the Miami News on May 30 1938, "Sen. Bilbo, Ex-Wife to be Campaign Foes" in the Tuscaloosa News on Jul. 28 1938, "18-19 Draft Bill is Introduced" in the Mt. Airy News on Sep. 11 1942, "Bilbo Ready to Talk 18 Months" in the Tuscaloosa News on May 30 1943, "A Curse on Washington" in the Afro-American on Mar. 25 1944, "Sen. Bilbo Starts Filibuster Against FEPC" in the Lewiston Daily Sun on Jun. 28 1945, "Catholic Group Assails Bilbo" in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on Aug. 8 1945, "Vet Group Asks Bilbo Impeachment" in the Evening Independent on Sep. 25 1945, "Jewish War Veterans Would Impeach Bilbo" in the Deseret News on Nov. 26 1945, "Senate to Investigate Bilbo's Efforts to Keep Negroes from Primary Polls" in the St. Petersburg Times on Jun. 27 1946, "Senator Says He is Klansman" in the Kentucky New Era on Aug. 10 1946, "The Washington Merry Go Round" in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on Oct. 26 1946, "Deny Bilbo a Seat" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Nov. 16 1946, "Senator Bilbo's Case" in the Indian Express on Jan. 5 1947, "Bilbo Succumbs After Operation in New Orleans" in the St. Petersburg Times on Aug. 22 1947, "Governor Fights to Educate Poor, Backward Mississippi" in the Ottawa Citizen on Dec. 11 1982, "South in New Disputes Over Heritage" in the Washington Times on Feb. 10 2009, "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism, 1938-1947" in the Journal of Mississippi History, Historical Dictionary of the 1940s by James Gilbert Ryan and Leonard C. Schlup, The Governors of Mississippi by Cecil L. Summers

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