The White Supremacist Caucus

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One thing that occurred to me when reading Robert Fleegler's essay on "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of. Public Racism, 1938-1947" was to look into how succeeded Bilbo as US Senator from Mississippi. The answer turned out to be John Stennis, one of twentieth century America's most admired white supremacists, whose legacy as a titan of the appropriations process is celebrated through such landmarks as the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier and the John C. Stennis Space Center. Stennis was, early in his career, ahead of his time as an advocate of torture:

As a prosecutor, he sought the conviction and execution of three black men whose murder confessions had been extracted by torture. The convictions were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case of Brown v. Mississippi (1936) that banned the use of evidence obtained by torture. The transcript of the trial indicates Stennis was fully aware of the methods of interrogation, including flogging, used to gain confessions.

Having gained a reputation in the 1930s as the kind of guy who didn't mind torturing confessions out of black defendants, Stennis was a natural to succeed Bilbo in the Senate. There he signed the Southern Manifesto in support of school segregation, opposed the civil rights legislation of the 1950s, opposed the Civil Rights Act, opposed the Voting Rights Act, and broke with the Democratic Party in 1964 to support Barry Goldwater since Goldwater was a civil rights opponents. His colleague in the Senate during this period was James Eastland, who was prone to saying things like this in the mid-1950s:

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 Stennis and Eastland eventually failed in their quest to uphold white supremacy, they didn't find themselves turned out of office by new biracial coalitions. Nor did they retire and fade quietly from the scene, embarrassed by their longtime record of support for apartheid and terrorist violence. Instead, both remained members in good standing of the Democratic Party, with Stennis re-elected in 1982, 1976, 1970, and 1964 before retiring in 1988 and Eastland re-elected in 1966 and 1972 in 1978.

And of course while noplace is ever quite like Mississippi, the basic pattern is fairly typical. All across the South, avowed white supremacist politicians tended to stick around well into the 1970s and 1980s under a kind of pact where they agreed to keep quiet about things like how segregation "the correct, self-evident truth" and others would agree to ignore their records. I think the "shocked, shocked" reaction that a lot of people seem to have to the idea that Ronald Reagan's consistent habit of taking the segregationist side on controversial issues might reflect some kind of racism needs to be put into this context. When Reagan was running for President in 1976 and 1980 there were tons of politicians with much worse records safely ensconced in the elite and the persistence of very conservative Democrats in important legislative leadership positions was the cornerstone of the era of bipartisan dealmaking whose demise is always being lamented. Things look very different from a perspective of thirty years later.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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