Remembering Theodore Bilbo, aka 'The Man'

By BENNY HORNSBY,

The recent dust-up between two of the Democratic presidential candidates over one having said that he had “cooperated” with segregationist senators in the South, including Mississippi’s own James O. Eastland, got me to thinking about the archetype of segregationist politicians in Mississippi between the two World Wars: Theodore Gilmore Bilbo.

If your roots go deep into Mississippi soil like mine, there’s a high probability that someone in your family tree once voted for him.

Bilbo was born in 1877 in the community of Juniper Grove, on Highway 53, just south of Poplarville, and is buried in the Juniper Grove Baptist Church Cemetery.

The information on his tombstone summarizes his earthly achievements: “Lieutenant Governor (1912-1916), Governor for two terms (1916-1920) and (1928-1932), United States Senator (1934 until his death in 1946), and Author.”

The St. Andrew’s Cross from the Confederate battle flag is etched on one side of the stone.

His father, a Confederate veteran, was a farmer who prospered to become a vice president of the Bank of Poplarville.

It was in his role as “Author” that I became acquainted with Bilbo when I was 13 years old. 

A lady, who I understood was kin to him and who lived across the road from the site of his “Dream House,” hired my daddy in 1954 to haul her tung nut harvest that year to the processing plant in Picayune.

My dad, a “shirttail trucker,” had a new 54’ Ford two-ton truck that he hoped to pay for doing such odd jobs.

It was a bad business plan: later on, hauling watermelons to the French Market in New Orleans, he had an itinerate artist paint “Always Late,” on the truck’s bumper, which was the title of the then current Lefty Frizzell country music hit song.

It must have been prescient about the monthly payments because the truck was soon repossessed. I can still remember the day the bank drove it away.

Anyway, the lady gave me a copy of Bilbo’s self-published book, Take Your Choice.

I wasn’t the most sophisticated reader in the world, but I recognized it for what it was: a compendium of segregationist arguments, and what my wiser self would now call a Southern cracker version of Mein Kampf.

Theodore Bilbo attended Peabody College in Nashville and Vanderbilt University Law School but graduated from neither.

Returning to Poplarville, he taught school, eventually passed the bar exam, opened a law office, and soon entered politics.

He was controversial from the beginning, being accused by his opponents of having cheated on an exam at law school and of an impropriety with a female student while a teacher in Wiggins.  

Diminutive in statue (5’2”), feisty in temperament, a dapper dresser never seen without his diamond horseshoe stickpin, and an excellent stump speaker, he soon acquired the sobriquet, “The Man.”

Like many southern politicians of his era, Bilbo often bounced from one controversy to another, but he seemed to always recover. His career was a game of Whack-a-Mole: knock him down, and he would get right back up. If you were his opponent, it was a “Ground Hog Day” movie nightmare of reelection victory after reelection victory.  Demigod or demagogue, “The Man” was to be reckoned with.

While Bilbo represents a dark side of our past, and this is definitely not one of those “I come not to bury Caesar but to praise him”(apologies to Shakespeare) hagiographies, “The Man” did have a “colorful” record during his many years in both local and national office.

There’s not enough room here to unpack all of my favorite Bilbo stories, but here’s just a few:

n Running for Pearl River County Circuit Clerk in 1903, he lost the election to a one-armed Baptist preacher. He was elected as a state senator in 1909 but was censured by the legislature for accepting a bribe in support of former Governor James K. Vardaman’s (“The Great White Chief”) bid for a vacant U.S. Senate seat.  During the campaign, he traveled with his opponent and one Sunday, they were scheduled to debate each other after services at a local church. Bilbo arrived early, played the piano, led the music, preached the sermon, and bonded with the congregation, easily winning the debate after church.

n While a state senator. Bilbo was infamous for introducing bill after bill, many frivolous, for consideration by the legislature. For some unknown reason, he hated soft-drinks and introduced a bill prohibiting their manufacture, including the following varieties: “coca cola, ala cola, celery cola, cream cola, four cola, koca loca, kola kola, lime kola, mellow nip, revive ola, and toka tona,” among others. The bill never got out of committee.

n When he ran for lieutenant governor, his tongue got him into trouble more than once. At a debate held at Blue Mountain College, he called his opponent “a cross between a hyena and a mongrel dog begotten in a graveyard at midnight, suckled by a sow, and educated by a fool.” His infuriated opponent then boarded the train Bilbo was on, hit him over the head several times with a pistol, and gave him a concussion.

n At another speech, he referred to a state senator from Yazoo City as a “renegade Confederate soldier.” When Bilbo refused to apologize, the senator broke his cane over Bilbo’s head, reminiscent but certainly not as deadly as the beating that Preston Brooks gave Charles Sumner on the U.S. Senate floor in 1856 after Sumner’s speech attacking slavery.

n When Bilbo was elected Governor in 1916, the editor of the opposition newspaper in Jackson, the Jackson Daily News, famously wrote in an editorial that the golden eagle on the dome of the state capitol building should be replaced by a “puking buzzard.”

n In his 1920 race for Congress, after his first term as Governor, Bilbo was defeated by a tick. There was an outbreak of Texas cattle fever in Mississippi, and Bilbo publicly supported a statewide mandatory cattle dipping program to kill the ticks which carried the fever. Many farmers, however, believed that the dip would be poisonous to their cattle and fought against it. Some dipping tanks were even dynamited. Bilbo lost the election because he lost the farmers’ support.

n In 1923, Bilbo was defeated for re-election for a second term as governor because he was caught hiding in a barn. A young lady had accused the current governor, Lee M. Russell, of seducing her, and he asked Bilbo to negotiate the $100,000 paternity suit that she had filed against him. When subpoenaed by her lawyers, Bilbo dodged the subpoena server by running out the back door and hiding in a nearby barn until the coast was clear. When found, he explained that “I could never testify against a friend,” but the resultant publicity greatly contributed to his defeat and the victory of Henry L. Whitfield.

Two of the most well-known incidents happened during his second term as governor: the firing of the college presidents and professors and the “liberation” of the marble columns during the restoration of the Old Capitol.

After carrying on a running feud with state educators over funding and citing the need for “fresh air,” Bilbo unilaterally fired the presidents of Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and MSCW, as well as 54 professors at Ole Miss. Burned in effigy by the students at Ole Miss, he responded by hiring the following individuals as presidents of the three respective state colleges: a real estate agent, a press agent, and a recent bachelor of arts graduate. He also hired a dentist to run the Old Miss Law School. These actions brought about national criticism about the loss of academic freedom and resulted in the three schools losing their accreditation for an extended period.

As for the faux marble columns from the Old Capitol building which was restored during his second gubernatorial administration, they mysteriously appeared attached to the front of his “Dream House” which was being constructed about the same time in Pearl River County.

I’m certainly not an apologist for “The Man,” but to be fair, he did accomplish several positive things for Mississippi while in office. Such a list might include: leading the fight to defeat the railroad lobby which had traditionally dominated state politics; establishing the State Fish and Game Commission; building a charity hospital at Laurel; greatly improving roads and bridges; established a Board of Pardons; creating the State Tax Commission; helping pass a law abolishing public hanging; creating an Education Commission; helping provide free text books in public schools; increasing legislative representation from South Mississippi; passing a sales tax law; creating Columbia Training School, and  building the tubercular sanatorium at Magee.

One of the most important things he did, from my point of view, was to establish the statewide system of agricultural high schools which, in turn, morphed into our excellent system of community colleges, of which Pearl River Community College was the first.

On the national level, he was very progressive. While a senator, he was a strong supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and most programs of the New Deal which helped pull America out of the Great Depression.

When Bilbo was reelected in 1946, his Democratic peers in the Senate refused to give him his seat, primarily because of his outspoken segregationist rhetoric.

Dying of oral cancer, he returned home to the Dream House at Juniper Grove. He died at Ochsner’s Hospital in New Orleans on August 21, 1947, with the Senate situation still unresolved.

The Dream House burned to the ground soon afterward, including most copies of Take Your Choice.

I was once assigned to the Pentagon, as the aide-de-camp to an admiral, and a friend of mine and I were discussing the antics of the then-mayor of Washington, Marion Berry, a native of Itta Bena, Mississippi, when Bilbo’s name came up. When he was in the Senate, “The Man” was so disliked by his northern Democratic peers that they placed him on the bottom-feeding committees, including the one overseeing the District of Columbia.

This, in effect, made him the de facto mayor of Washington. Warming to the subject, I showed my friend my old copy of Take Your Choice. He looked at it briefly and said, “You should burn this.” My reply was right out of the first Blues Brothers movie.

You remember the scene where Jake is just out of Joliet prison and he asks his brother, Elwood, “Where’s the Cadillac?” Elwood replies, “I traded it for a microphone.” Jake then says, as I said to my friend that night at dinner when he said, “Burn the book:” “I can see that.”

Let me be perfectly clear: Bilbo was a racist, and there’s no defense for his racist ideology.  His record speaks for itself. 

Much of what he said over the years was xenophobic trope and opprobrium. You can’t rewrite history. His official papers and letters are held at USM’s McCain Library and, although it’s been more than 50 years since I looked them over, I would encourage anyone interested in the history of civil rights in the South to examine them.

On the other hand, he was a very influential person, much more than a rural “peckerwood” or a caricature of Boss Hogg.

“The Man” represents a time in our history that we should all be more familiar with.

Light a candle for me.

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note via his website at: bennyhornsby.com

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