One of my fondest memories was spending four days in February 1977 as a staffer sitting on the Senate floor, mostly wedged between Gaylord Nelson and Russell Long as the Senate debated a resolution to reform its committee system. They were good friends, lovely people, and great storytellers, and I mostly sat there taking their conversation in, occasionally earning my pay by letting them know what a particular provision of the resolution did or what an amendment would do.
At my request, Long opened up his Senate desk so I could see the signatures of all the senators who had used the same desk over many previous decades. The signature of Theodore Bilbo just jumped out at me. Bilbo was a legend—and not in a good way. In his two Senate terms representing Mississippi, from 1935 to 1947, he stood out as a mean and vicious racist, not shy about spouting ugly bile on the floor or elsewhere.
He wanted pure segregation and ultimately to send black Americans to Africa. He said, "The experiences and history of thousands of years prove that whenever and wherever the white and black man have tried to live side by side, the result has been mongrelization, which has destroyed both races and left a brown mongrel people." When he filibustered an antilynching bill in 1938, he called its supporters "mulattoes, octoroons, and quadroons." He use the "N" word incessantly, in and out of the Senate. Among a large collection of segregationists, he stood out for his ugly rhetoric and incitement of white Southerners to violence. As I sat on the Senate floor 37 years ago, I thought, "Well, we have at least come a long way."