Thad Cochran just lost the second-closest primary race in Mississippi history. Democrats are hoping that they can depict the winner, tea-party favorite Chris McDaniel, as a reactionary neo-Confederate white supremacist.
For a little historical perspective, let’s consider how McDaniel will compare with the Democrats’ own reactionary neo-Confederate white supremacist, Theodore (“The Man”) Bilbo, who lost the state’s closest primary 80 years ago and whom Republicans finally kicked out of the Senate in 1947.
Bilbo began as a schoolteacher, but this career ended in 1905, when he was alleged to be carrying on an affair with a female student. So he moved on to law school and then politics.
“The Man” was a populist progressive, appealing to white small farmers — “rednecks” — against the Bourbon grandee plantation owners of the Delta. As a state senator, when the legislature was choosing Mississippi’s U.S. senator (before the Seventeenth Amendment), Bilbo admitted that he had taken a bribe from one candidate’s manager — but claimed that he had done so only as part of an investigation. For this he was nearly expelled; the Senate resolved that he was “unfit to sit with honest, upright men.”
In a 1911 campaign for lieutenant governor, Bilbo denounced detractor J. J. Henry vociferously, calling him “a cross between a hyena and a mongrel . . . begotten in a ni**er graveyard at midnight, suckled by a cow, and educated by a fool.” In response, and against the advice of his friends, who feared that retaliation would redound to Bilbo’s benefit, Henry pistol-whipped Bilbo, putting him in the hospital for two weeks. Bilbo indeed squeezed political mileage out of the incident and won the race. After his election, Bilbo again faced charges for taking bribes. Acquitted, he became governor in 1915. He was in and out of office until his election to the U.S. Senate in 1934.
Bilbo was an ardent New Deal liberal, joining the administration’s attacks on Wall Street bankers, though Bilbo added a strong dose of anti-Semitism to his charges. He stuck by President Franklin D. Roosevelt after most southern Democrats had repudiated him.
In the 1940s, he became more vocal in his white supremacism. He praised Nazi racial policy, saying: “The Germans appreciate the importance of race values. They understand that racial improvement is the greatest asset that any country can have.” He filibustered anti-lynching bills. His own solution to the race problem was to deport African Americans to “Greater Liberia.” He proposed that France and Great Britain hand over their West African colonies for this purpose in exchange for having their war debts forgiven. Ardent civil-rights supporter Eleanor Roosevelt, he suggested, could become Greater Liberia’s queen.
Before the Second World War, Bilbo’s antics passed mostly unnoticed and unrebuked among his fellow Democrats. He gave the keynote address to the New York Young Democrats meeting in 1940, and liberal Pennsylvania Democrat Joseph Guffey was thankful for his support.
After the war, Bilbo’s extreme racism and anti-Semitism became less acceptable. (His bigotry extended beyond blacks and Jews: He began a letter to a New York Italian American with the greeting “Dear Dago.”) He campaigned for reelection in 1946 with this blunt appeal: “I call on every red-blooded white man to use any means to keep the niggers away from the polls. If you don’t understand what that means, you are just plain dumb.” War service had also prompted blacks to become increasingly assertive about their rights. Black voter registration increased from 3 percent in 1940 to 12 percent in 1947. (Medgar Evers was one returning black serviceman who first voted in 1946.)
The Senate investigated Bilbo’s vote-suppression tactics, but the chamber was still controlled by the Democrats, and the party was still controlled by the South. Senator Allan Ellender (D., La.) headed a committee that concluded that low black turnout was just “tradition.” But Bilbo’s days were numbered. He had begun to draw criticism from across the political spectrum, now from the conservative Saturday Evening Post and from the Ohio senator Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican,” who denounced Bilbo as “a disgrace.”
Having won control of the Senate in 1946, the Republican majority kept Bilbo from taking his seat. A simple majority was sufficient for this, whereas a two-thirds majority would have been required to oust him once seated. Bilbo died while he was being investigated for voter suppression and corruption.
— Paul Moreno is the director of academic programs at Hillsdale College’s Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship.