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About James Oliver Eastland
James Oliver Eastland (November 28, 1904 – February 19, 1986) was an American politician from Mississippi who briefly served in the United States Senate as a Democrat in 1941; and again from 1943 until his resignation December 27, 1978. From 1947 to 1978, he served alongside John Stennis, also a Democrat. At the time, Eastland and Stennis were the longest-serving Senate duo in American history, though their record was subsequently surpassed by Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, who served together for 36 years. Eastland was also the most senior member of the Senate at the time of his retirement in 1978. He compiled a conservative record in support of the conservative coalition.
Eastland was born in Doddsville, the son of Woods Caperton Eastland, a cotton planter, and Alma Teresa (Austin) Eastland. In 1905 he moved with his parents to Forest where he attended public schools. A lawyer in rural Mississippi, he served one term in the state House of Representatives from 1928 to 1932. In the 1930s, he took over the family's Sunflower County plantation, which eventually grew to nearly 6,000 acres (24 km2). Even after entering politics, he considered himself first and foremost a cotton planter.
Eastland was first appointed to the Senate in 1941 by Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr., following the death of Senator Pat Harrison, but Eastland did not run in the special election for the seat later in the year; it was won by 2nd District Congressman Wall Doxey. In 1942, Eastland was one of three candidates who challenged Doxey for a full term. Even though Doxey had the support of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mississippi's senior U.S. Senator, Theodore G. Bilbo, Eastland defeated him in the Democratic primary. In those days, winning the Democratic nomination was tantamount to election in Mississippi, and Eastland returned to the Senate on January 3, 1943.
FDR and Eastland developed a working relationship that enabled Eastland to oppose New Deal programs unpopular in Mississippi while he supported FDR's agenda on many other issues. This type of arrangement became the norm with presidents of both parties during his tenure in the Senate. As a result he was able to provide federal largess for Mississippi (including the Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway and federal relief after Hurricane Camille) throughout his career.
In 1963, Eastland campaigned in Mississippi for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Paul B. Johnson, Jr., of Hattiesburg, the son of the governor who had first appointed Eastland to the Senate. Republican state chairman Wirt Yerger, a businessman from Jackson, criticized Eastland for missing key votes in the Senate while undertaking political duties. Johnson defeated the Republican standard-bearer, Rubel Phillips, a lawyer originally from Alcorn County. In time, however, the GOP gained parity if not supremacy to the Democrats in Mississippi. In 1966, Wirt Yerger resigned as party chairman and considered challenging Eastland for reelection until freshman U.S. Representative Prentiss Walker of Mize entered the race. Years later, Yerger said that Walker's decision to relinquish his House seat after one term for the vagaries of a Senate race against Eastland was "very devastating" to the growth of the Mississippi GOP. Walker was in turn succeeded by long-term Democratic Representative G. V. "Sonny" Montgomery of Meridian.
He was re-elected five times, facing substantive GOP opposition only twice. Prentiss Walker, the first Republican to represent Mississippi at the federal level since Reconstruction, ran against him. Walker ran well to Eastland's right, accusing him of not having done enough to keep integration-friendly judges from being confirmed by the Senate. As is often the case when a one-term representative runs against a popular incumbent senator or governor, Walker was soundly defeated.
In 1972, Eastland was reelected with 58% of the vote in his "closest" contest ever. His Republican opponent, Gil Carmichael, an automobile dealer from Meridian, might have been aided by President Richard Nixon's landslide reelection in forty-nine states, including 78% of Mississippi's popular vote. However, Nixon worked "under the table" to support Eastland, who was a long-time personal friend. Nixon and other Republicans provided little support for Carmichael to avoid alienating conservative Southern Democrats though the GOP did work to elect two House candidates who later became influential U.S. senators, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran. Eastland recognized that Nixon would handily carry Mississippi and did not endorse the national Democratic candidate, George McGovern of South Dakota. Four years later, Eastland supported the candidacy of fellow Southern Democrat Jimmy Carter of Georgia, rather than Nixon's heir, Gerald R. Ford, Jr.
In 1956, Eastland was appointed as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Under the Senate's seniority rules, he was next in line for the chairmanship and there was no significant effort to deny him the post, which he held until his retirement.
During his last Senate term, he served as President pro tempore of the Senate since he was the longest-serving Democrat in the Senate.
Views on civil rights and race
Eastland is best known for his strong support of states' rights and for his opposition to the civil rights movement.
When the Supreme Court issued its decision in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas 347 US 483 (1954), Eastland, like most Southern Democrats, denounced it. In a speech given in Senatobia, Mississippi on August 12, 1955, he said: "On May 17, 1954, the Constitution of the United States was destroyed because of the Supreme Court's decision. You are not obliged to obey the decisions of any court which are plainly fraudulent sociological considerations."
Eastland did not mince words when it came to his feelings about the races mingling. He testified to the Senate 10 days after the Brown decision came down:
The Southern institution of racial segregation or racial separation was the correct, self-evident truth which arose from the chaos and confusion of the Reconstruction period. Separation promotes racial harmony. It permits each race to follow its own pursuits, and its own civilization. Segregation is not discrimination... Mr. President, it is the law of nature, it is the law of God, that every race has both the right and the duty to perpetuate itself. All free men have the right to associate exclusively with members of their own race, free from governmental interference, if they so desire.
When three civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman went missing in Mississippi on June 21, 1964, he reportedly told President Lyndon Johnson that the incident was a hoax and there was no Ku Klux Klan in the state, surmising that the three had gone to Chicago:
Johnson: Jim, we've got three kids missing down there. What can I do about it? Eastland: Well, I don't know. I don't believe there's ... I don't believe there's three missing. Johnson: We've got their parents down here. Eastland: I believe it's a publicity stunt...
Johnson once said that, "Jim Eastland could be standing right in the middle of the worst Mississippi flood ever known, and he'd say the niggers caused it, helped out by the Communists."
Eastland, along with Senators Robert Byrd, John McClellan, Olin D. Johnston, Sam Ervin, and Strom Thurmond, made unsuccessful attempts to block Thurgood Marshall's confirmation to the Federal Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. Often, offensive statements related to race were attributed to Eastland during this period even though they may have been made by other speakers. Although Eastland was a staunch segregationist, he refrained from the most extreme rhetoric that characterized other civil rights opponents.
Eastland, like most of his southern colleagues, opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its passage caused many Mississippi Democrats to openly support Barry Goldwater's presidential bid that year, but Eastland did not publicly oppose the election of Lyndon Johnson. In fact, four years earlier he had quietly supported John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. Although Goldwater was heavily defeated by incumbent Lyndon Johnson, he carried Mississippi with 87% of the popular vote (his best showing in any state) due to his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Eastland was often at odds with Johnson's policy on civil rights, but their friendship remained close and Johnson often sought Eastland's support and guidance on other issues, such as the failed Chief Justice nomination of Abe Fortas in 1969. In the 1950s, Johnson was one of three Senators from the South who didn't sign the Southern Manifesto, as did Eastland and most Southern Senators.
Contrary to popular opinion, Eastland did not use the appointment of Harold Cox to a federal judgeship as leverage against John F. Kennedy's appointment of Thurgood Marshall to a federal judgeship. Cox was nominated by Kennedy more than a year before Marshall even came up for consideration, and his nomination resulted from a personal conversation between Cox and Kennedy. The president, not wanting to upset the powerful chairman of the Judiciary Committee, generally acceded to Eastland's requests on judicial confirmations in Mississippi, keeping white segregationists in control of the Federal courts in the state.
During his later years, Eastland avoided associating himself with racist stands in the face of increasing black political power in Mississippi. During this period Eastland hired black Mississippians to serve on the staff of the Judiciary Committee. Eastland noted to aides that his earlier position on race was due primarily to the political realities of the times, i.e., as a major political figure in a southern state in the 1950s and 1960s. He considered running for reelection in 1978 and sought black support. He won the support of civil rights leader and NAACP president Aaron Henry, but he ultimately decided not to seek re-election in 1978. Due in part to the independent candidacy of Charles Evers siphoning off votes from the Democratic candidate, Republican 4th District Representative Thad Cochran won the race to succeed him. Eastland resigned two days after Christmas to give Cochran a leg up in seniority. After his retirement, he remained friends with Aaron Henry and sent contributions to the NAACP, but he publicly stated that he "didn't regret a thing" in his public career.
Eastland served on a subcommittee investigating the Communist Party. As chairman of the Internal Security Subcommittee, he subpoenaed some employees of The New York Times, which was at the time taking a strong position on its editorial page that Mississippi should adhere to the Brown decision. The Times countered in its January 5, 1956 editorial:
Our faith is strong that long after Senator Eastland and his present subcommittee are gone, long after segregation has lost its final battle in the South, long after all that was known as McCarthyism is a dim, unwelcome memory, long after the last Congressional committee has learned that it cannot tamper successfully with a free press, The New York Times will be speaking for [those] who make it, and only for [those] who make it, and speaking, without fear or favor, the truth as it sees it.
Eastland subsequently allowed the subcommittee to become dormant as issues such as the threat of Communism receded.
In his last years in the Senate, Eastland was recognized by most Senators as one who knew how to wield the legislative powers he had accumulated. Many Senators, including liberals who opposed many of his conservative positions, acknowledged the fairness with which he chaired the Judiciary Committee, sharing staff and authority that chairmen of other committees jealously held for themselves. He maintained personal ties with stalwart liberal Democrats such as Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and Phil Hart, even though they disagreed on many issues. Following Johnson's retirement from the White House, Eastland frequently visited Johnson at his Texas ranch.
Eastland died on February 19, 1986. The law library at Ole Miss is named after Eastland. This has caused some controversy in Mississippi given Eastland's earlier racist positions, but the University benefited financially from Eastland's many friends and supporters, as it has done from other political figures of Eastland's era.
Senate President pro tempore
James Eastland is the most recent President pro tempore to have served during a vacancy in the Vice Presidency. He did so twice during the tumultuous 1970s, first from October to December 1973, following Spiro Agnew's resignation until the swearing-in of Gerald Ford as Vice President, and then from August to December 1974, from the time that Ford became President until Nelson Rockefeller was sworn in as Vice President. During these periods Eastland was second in the presidential line of succession, behind only Speaker of the House Carl Albert.