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About Theodore Gilmore Bilbo
Theodore Gilmore Bilbo (October 13, 1877 – August 21, 1947) was an American politician. Bilbo, a Democrat, twice served as governor of Mississippi (1916–20, 1928–32) and later was elected a U.S. Senator (1935–47). A master of filibuster and scathing rhetoric, a rough-and-tumble fighter in debate, he made his name a synonym for white supremacy. Proud of being a racist, Bilbo believed that black people were inferior, defended segregation, and was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Of short stature (5 ft 2 in, 1.57 m), Bilbo wore flashy clothing, and was nicknamed "The Man" because he tended to refer to himself in the third person.
Bilbo was the author of Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization.
Bilbo was born to a poor family in Juniper Grove, a hamlet in Pearl River County, Mississippi. He attended college at Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, and law school at Vanderbilt University, although he did not graduate from either institution. Later, Bilbo worked as a teacher. In 1908, he was admitted to the bar in Tennessee and began a law practice in Poplarville, Mississippi.
Bilbo served in the Mississippi State Senate from 1908 to 1912. In 1910, he attracted national attention in a bribery scandal. After the death of U.S. Senator James Gordon, the State Senate was deadlocked in choosing between LeRoy Percy or former Governor James K. Vardaman for United States Senator. After 58 ballots, Bilbo on February 28 was one of several candidates to break the stalemate by switching his vote to Percy, who won by an 87–82 majority. Bilbo told a grand jury the next day that he had accepted a $645 bribe from L.C. Dulaney, but that he had done so as part of a private investigation. The State Senate voted 28–10 to expel him from office, falling one vote short of the 3/4 majority needed. The Senate passed a resolution calling him "unfit to sit with honest, upright men in a respectable legislative body."
During his subsequent campaign for lieutenant governor, Bilbo made a comment to Washington Dorsey Gibbs, a state senator from Yazoo City. Gibbs was insulted, and during the ensuing skirmish broke his cane over Bilbo's head. But Bilbo's campaign was successful, and he served as lieutenant governor from 1912 to 1916. One of his first acts as lieutenant governor was to remove the resolution calling him "unfit to sit with honest men" from the records.
After serving as Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi for four years, Bilbo was elected to the office of governor in 1915. Cresswell (2006) argues that in his first term (1916–20) Bilbo had "the most successful administration" of all the governors who served between 1877 and 1917, putting state finances in order and supporting such Progressive measures as passing a compulsory school attendance law, founding a new charity hospital, and establishing a board of bank examiners.
In his first term, his Progressive program was largely implemented. He was known as "Bilbo the Builder" because of his authorization of a state highway system, as well as lime crushing plants, new dormitories of the Old Soldiers' Home, and a tuberculosis hospital. He pushed through a law eliminating public hangings and worked on eradication of the South American tick. The state constitution prohibited governors from having successive terms.
Bilbo chose to run for a seat in the House of Representatives. During the campaign, a bout of "Texas fever" broke out, and Bilbo supported a program to dip cattle in insecticide to kill the ticks carrying the fever. Mississippi farmers were generally not happy about the idea, and Bilbo was unable to win a seat in Congress.
Afterward, Bilbo caused controversy by hiding in a barn to avoid a subpoena in a case involving his friend, then-governor Lee M. Russell. He had served as Bilbo's lieutenant governor, and was being sued by his former secretary, who accused Russell of breach of promise and of seducing and impregnating her. She had undergone an abortion that left her unable to have children.
Russell asked Bilbo to try to convince her not to sue Russell. He was unsuccessful, but the woman was unsuccessful in her suit against Russell. Judge Edwin R. Holmes sentenced Bilbo to 30 days in prison for "contempt of court" and he served 10 days behind bars. He lost his run for re-election in 1923.
In 1927 Bilbo was elected Governor again after winning the Democratic primary in a runoff election over Governor Dennis Murphree. Bilbo criticized Murphree for calling out the National Guard to prevent a lynching in Jackson, declaring that no black person was worthy of protection by the Guard.
His second term was filled with controversy involving his plan to move the University of Mississippi from Oxford to Jackson. That idea was eventually defeated. During the 1928 presidential election, Bilbo helped Al Smith carry the state despite overwhelming anti-Catholicism, by claiming that Herbert Hoover had met with a black member of the Republican National Committee and danced with her. In a speech in Memphis on October 17, Bilbo asserted that during a visit to Mississippi in 1927, "Hoover insisted that his train be routed through Mount Bayou... in order that he might visit Mrs. Mary Booze, a negress, socially," and added, "Mary Booze is as Black as the ace of spades. And Hoover danced with her." Though widely reported, and followed by an anonymous political flyer featuring a doctored photo supposedly showing Hoover and Mrs. Booze dancing together, which was circulated throughout the South, the story did not prevent Hoover from being elected President of the United States the following month.
Firing the professors
In 1930, Bilbo convened a meeting of the State Board of Universities and Colleges to approve his plans to dismiss 179 faculty members. Appearing before reporters after the meeting, he announced, "Boys, we've just hung up a new record. We've bounced three college presidents and made three new ones in the record time of two hours. And that's just the beginning of what's going to happen". The presidents of the University of Mississippi, Mississippi A & M (later Mississippi State University), and the Mississippi State College for Women were all fired and replaced, respectively, by a realtor, a press agent, and a recent B.A. degree-recipient. The Dean of the Medical School at Ole Miss was replaced by "a man who once had a course in dentistry".
The Association of American Universities and the Southern Association of College and Secondary Schools suspended recognition of degrees from all four of Mississippi's state colleges. The American Medical Association voted to cancel the accreditation of the state's college of medicine. The Association of American University Professors (AAUP), meeting in Cleveland, passed a resolution that the remaining Mississippi professors would "be regarded as retired members of the profession," after finding that the dismissals of employees had been made "for political considerations and without concern for the welfare of the students". During the crisis, Bilbo was burned in effigy by students at Ole Miss, but he was unconcerned about the state's image. He made national headlines by giving an interview while "sitting in a tub of hot water, soap in one hand, washrag in the other, and a cigar in his mouth". The lack of recognition continued until "satisfactory evidence of improved conditions" was provided to the AAUP and the other institutions in 1932.
In his final year of office, Bilbo and the legislature were at a stalemate. When he refused to sign the tax bills, and the legislature refused to approve his bills. At the end of his term, the State of Mississippi was broke. The state treasury had only $1,326.57 in its coffers, and the state was $11,500,000 in debt. Bilbo, whose actions had halted USDA funding of the agricultural school at Mississippi state, was hired as a "consultant on public relations" for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a short time. He clipped newspaper articles for a high salary, a reward from Senator Pat Harrison for Bilbo's campaign support. Pundits dubbed him the "Pastemaster General." Soon, Bilbo made plans to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Hubert Stephens.
In 1934, Bilbo defeated Stephens to win a seat in the United States Senate. There he spoke against "farmer murderers", "poor-folks haters", "shooters of widows and orphans", "international well-poisoners", "charity hospital destroyers", "spitters on our heroic veterans", "rich enemies of our public schools", "private bankers 'who ought to come out in the open and let folks see what they're doing'", "European debt cancelers", "unemployment makers", pacifists, Communists, munitions manufacturers, and "skunks who steal Gideon Bibles from hotel rooms".
In Washington, Bilbo feuded with Pat Harrison, the senior senator from the state. The feud started when Harrison nominated Edwin R. Holmes for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Bilbo disliked Holmes, and spoke against him for five hours; he was the only senator to vote against Holmes' confirmation. When the Senate majority leader’s job opened up in 1937, Harrison went after it. Nose counts put him in a tie with Kentucky’s Alben Barkley.
Harrison’s campaign manager asked Bilbo to consider voting for his fellow Mississippian. Bilbo, whose base was among tenant farmers, hated the upper-class Harrison, who represented the rich planters and merchants. Bilbo said he would vote for Harrison only if he were personally asked. Harrison replied, "Tell the son of a bitch I wouldn’t speak to him even if it meant the presidency of the United States." Harrison lost by one vote, 37-to-38, and his reputation as the senator who wouldn’t speak to his home-state colleague remained intact. Bilbo had taken revenge by voting against the fellow Mississippian. His former law partner Stewart C. "Sweep Clean" Broom aided Harrison with a speech, as noted by Time magazine.
In the Senate, Bilbo supported the Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Bilbo's outspoken support of segregation and white supremacy were controversial in the Senate. Attracted by the ideas of black separatists such as Marcus Garvey, Bilbo proposed an amendment to the federal work-relief bill on June 6, 1938, proposing to deport 12 million black Americans to Liberia at federal expense to relieve unemployment. He wrote a book advocating the idea. Garvey praised him in return, saying that Bilbo had "done wonderfully well for the Negro". But, Thomas W. Harvey, a senior Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League leader in the US, distanced himself from Bilbo because of his racist speeches.
The Democrats assigned Bilbo to what was considered the least important Senate committee, one on governance of the District of Columbia, to try to limit his influence. He used his position to advance his white supremacist views. Bilbo was against giving any vote to district residents, especially as the district's Black population was increasing during the Great Migration. After re-election, he advanced to sufficient seniority to chair the committee, 1945–47. He also served on the Pensions Committee, chairing it 1942–45.
Bilbo revealed his membership in the Ku Klux Klan in an interview on the radio program Meet the Press. He said, "No man can leave the Klan. He takes an oath not to do that. Once a Ku Klux, always a Ku Klux."
Bilbo was outspoken in saying that blacks should not be allowed to vote anywhere in the United States, regardless of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution. Black World War II veterans complained of longstanding disfranchisement in the South, which Mississippi had achieved in 1890 by changes to its constitution related to electoral and voter registration rules. (Other Southern states followed with similar changes through 1910, which survived most court challenges.) Bilbo's campaign was accused of provoking violence related to voting. Critics accused Bilbo of giving war contracts out to his friends.
He was a prominent participant in the lengthy southern Democratic filibuster of the Costigan-Walker anti-lynching bill before the Senate in 1938. Bilbo said:
If you succeed in the passage of this bill, you will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousandfold; and upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie, as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded Anglo-Saxon White Southern men will not tolerate.
Bilbo denounced Richard Wright's autobiography, Black Boy, on the Senate floor:
"Its purpose is to plant the seeds of devilment and troublebreeding in the days to come in the mind and heart of every American Negro.... It is the dirtiest, filthiest, lousiest, most obscene piece of writing that I have ever seen in print. I would hate to have a son or daughter of mine permitted to read it; it is so filthy and so dirty. But it comes from a Negro, and you cannot expect any better from a person of his type."
Bilbo was re-elected to a third Senate term in November 1946. The newly elected Republican majority in the United States Senate refused to seat Bilbo for the term because by his speeches, he was believed to have incited violence against blacks who wanted to vote in the South. In addition, a committee found that he had taken bribes. A filibuster by his supporters delayed the seating of the Senate for days. It was resolved when a supporter proposed that Bilbo's credentials remain on the table while he returned home to Mississippi to seek medical treatment for his oral cancer.
Bilbo retired to his "Dream House" estate in Poplarville, Mississippi, where he wrote and published a summary of his racial ideas entitled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization (Dream House Publishing Company, 1947). His house, which served as the namesake and office of his publishing company, burned down in late fall that year, with the fire consuming many copies of the book.
Bilbo died at the age of 69 in New Orleans, Louisiana. On his deathbed he summoned Leon Louis, the editor of the black newspaper Negro South to make a statement:
I am honestly against the social intermingling of Negroes and Whites but I hold nothing personal against the Negroes as a race. They should be proud of their God-given heritage just as I am proud of mine. I believe Negroes should have the right [to indiscriminate use of the ballot], and in Mississippi too—when their main purpose is not to put me out of office and when they won't try to besmirch the reputation of my state.
Bilbo was treated at the forerunner of New Orleans' Ochsner Medical Center called Ochsner Clinic. An orderly named Frank Wilderson, an African-American student at Xavier University (later a vice president at the University of Minnesota), worked part time at the Oschner Clinic at the time. After Bilbo died, the orderly staff left his body in the room until Wilderson began work later that night, so that the African-American orderly could remove the body of the segregationist. Wilderson said in a 2004 newspaper article, "the moment was stark because alive he [Bilbo] would have resisted any attempt for me to touch him."
His funeral at Juniper Grove Cemetery in Poplarville was attended by 5,000 mourners, including the governor and the junior senator. A bronze statue of Bilbo was placed in the rotunda of the Mississippi state Capitol building. It was relocated to another room, which is now frequently used by the Legislative Black Caucus. Some of the members use the statue's outstretched arm as a coat rack.
In the 1940s, Bilbo was referred to in multiple ways in the media. He was referred to in the 1947 Academy Award-winning film Gentleman's Agreement; a 1947 blues song "Bilbo is Dead" by Andrew Tibbs; in Bob and Adrienne Claiborne's song, "Listen Mr. Bilbo" (1946); and in Lee Hays' song, "Talking Bilbo". The character of "Senator Billboard Rawkins" in the musical Finian's Rainbow (1947) is believed to have been based in part on Bilbo.
Jack Webb devoted an episode of his crusading 1946 radio show One Out of Seven to attacking Bilbo's racial views. He dramatized extracts from Bilbo's speeches and letters attacking Negroes, "Dagoes" (Italians), and Jews, while asserting after each extract some variation of "...but Senator Bilbo is an honorable man. We do not intend to prove otherwise." (John Dunning, the author of On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, says this was a deliberate reference to Marc Antony's funeral oration in Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar).
The novel Sophie's Choice by William Styron (1979), set in the postwar years of World War II, also makes reference to Bilbo.