Theodore G. Bilbo
|United States Senator|
January 3, 1935 - August 21, 1947
|Hubert D. Stephens|
|John C. Stennis|
|39th and 43rd Governor of Mississippi|
January 17, 1928 - January 19, 1932
|Lieutenant||Cayton B. Adam|
|Martin Sennett Conner|
January 18, 1916 - January 20, 1920
|Lieutenant||Lee M. Russell|
|Earl L. Brewer|
|Lee M. Russell|
|Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi|
January 16, 1912 - January 18, 1916
|Governor||Earl L. Brewer|
|Lee M. Russell|
|Member of the Mississippi Senate|
Theodore Gilmore Bilbo
October 13, 1877
Pearl River County, Mississippi, U.S.
|Died||August 21, 1947 (aged 69)|
New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
|Resting place||Juniper Grove Cemetery, Poplarville, Mississippi, U.S.|
Lillian Selita Herrington
(m. 1898; died 1899)
Lida Ruth Gaddy
Theodore Gilmore Bilbo (October 13, 1877 – August 21, 1947) was an American politician who twice served as governor of Mississippi (1916-20, 1928-32) and later was elected a U.S. Senator (1935-47). A filibusterer whose name was synonymous with white supremacy, like many Southern Democrats of his era, Bilbo believed that black people were inferior; he defended segregation, and was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Bilbo was educated in rural Hancock County (later Pearl River County). He attended Peabody Normal College in Nashville, Tennessee and Vanderbilt University Law School. After teaching school he attained admission to the bar in 1906, and practiced in Poplarville. He then served in the Mississippi State Senate for four years, 1908 to 1912.
Bilbo overcame accusations of accepting bribes and won election as lieutenant governor, a position he held from 1912 to 1916. In 1915, he was elected governor, and he served from 1916 to 1920. During this term he earned accolades for enacting Progressive measures such as compulsory school attendance, as well as increased spending on public works projects. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the United States House of Representatives in 1920.
Bilbo won election to the governorship again in 1927, and served from 1928 to 1932. During this term Bilbo caused controversy by attempting to move the University of Mississippi from Oxford to Jackson. In another controversy, he aided Democratic nominee Al Smith in the 1928 presidential election by spreading the story that Republican nominee Herbert Hoover had socialized with a black woman; Mississippi voters, considering whether to maintain their allegiance to the Democratic Party in light of Smith's Catholicism and support for the repeal of Prohibition, largely remained with Smith after Bilbo's appeal to racism. In 1930, under Governor Bilbo, Mississippi introduced a sales tax - the first American state to do so.
In 1934 Bilbo won election to a seat in the United States Senate; he served from 1935 until his death. In the Senate, Bilbo maintained his support for segregation and white supremacy; he was also attracted to the ideas of the black separatist movement, considering it a potentially viable method of maintaining segregation. He died in a New Orleans hospital while undergoing treatment for cancer, and was buried at Juniper Grove Cemetery in Poplarville.
Bilbo was of short stature--5 ft 2 in (1.57 m)--and frequently wore bright, flashy clothing to draw attention to himself, and he was nicknamed "The Man" because he tended to refer to himself in the third person.
Bilbo was the author of a pro-segregation work, Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization.
On October 13, 1877, Bilbo was born in the small town of Juniper Grove in Hancock (later Pearl River) County. His parents, Obedience "Beedy" (née Wallis or Wallace) and James Oliver Bilbo, were of Scotch-Irish descent, and James was a farmer and veteran of the Confederate States Army who rose from poverty during Theodore Bilbo's early years to become Vice President of the Poplarville National Bank. Theodore Bilbo obtained a scholarship to attend Peabody Normal College in Nashville, Tennessee, and later attended Vanderbilt University Law School, but did not graduate from either. He also taught school and worked at a drug store during his legal studies, was admitted to the bar in Tennessee in 1906, and began a law practice in Poplarville, Mississippi the following year.
During his teaching career, Bilbo was accused of being overly familiar with a female student. At Vanderbilt, though he had been admitted to the senior class, he left without graduating. He was accused of cheating on academics, but it appears more likely that he left school for financial reasons. Though these accusations never rose to the level of formal charges, they helped create the perception that Bilbo was profligate and dishonest.
In 1910, Bilbo attracted national attention in a bribery scandal. After the death of U.S. Senator James Gordon, the legislature was deadlocked in choosing between LeRoy Percy or former Governor James K. Vardaman as Gordon's successor. After 58 ballots, on February 28 Bilbo was one of several candidates to break the stalemate by switching his vote to Percy, who won 87-82. Bilbo told a grand jury the next day that he had accepted a 645 dollar 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 majority needed. The Senate passed a resolution - which did not require a majority - 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 from the records the resolution calling him "unfit to sit with honest men."
After serving as Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi for four years, Bilbo was elected 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 Progressive measures such as compulsory school attendance, a new charity hospital, and 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 at the Old Soldiers' Home, a tuberculosis hospital and his work on eradication of the South American tick.
In 1916 he pushed through a law eliminating public hangings. The Haynes Report, a call to national action in response to race riots throughout the summer of 1919, pointed to Bilbo as exemplifying the collective failure of the states to stop or even prosecute thousands of lawless executions over several decades. Before the burning at the stake of John Hartfield in Ellisville, Miss., on June 26, 1919, according to the report, Bilbo said in a speech:
I am utterly powerless. The State has no troops, and if the civil authorities at Ellisville are helpless, the States are equally so. Furthermore, excitement is at such a high pitch throughout South Mississippi that any armed attempt to interfere would doubtless result in the deaths of hundreds of persons. The negro has confessed, says he is ready to die, and nobody can keep the inevitable from happening.
The state constitution prohibited governors from having successive terms so Bilbo chose to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1918. During the campaign, a bout of Texas fever broke out among cattle 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 lost the primary to Paul B. Johnson Sr..
Lee M. Russell, then Governor, had served as Bilbo's lieutenant governor and was being sued by his former secretary, who accused him of breach of promise and of seducing and impregnating her. She had then undergone an abortion that left her unable to have further children. Russell asked Bilbo to try to convince the woman not to sue. Bilbo was unsuccessful, but Russell's secretary was unsuccessful in her suit as well.
Judge Edwin R. Holmes asked Bilbo to submit documents pertinent to the case. Bilbo refused and was caught hiding in a barn to avoid a subpoena. Subsequently, he was sentenced to 30 days in prison for contempt of court, and served 10 days behind bars. He also lost his run to return to the governorship in 1923.
In 1927, Bilbo was elected governor again after winning the Democratic primary election over Governor Dennis Murphree, who had succeeded to the top position from the lieutenant governorship on the death of Governor Henry L. Whitfield.
The lieutenant governor in Bilbo's last term as governor was the lawyer Bidwell Adam, a strong party loyalist and a staunch segregationist from Pass Christian and later Gulfport, sometimes known as the "firebrand from the Coast".
During the 1928 presidential election, Bilbo helped Al Smith (D) from New York to carry the state by a large margin. Conservative, Protestant Democratic voters were considering abandoning Smith because he was Catholic and because he supported the repeal of prohibition. Bilbo spread the rumor that Republican candidate Herbert Hoover had socialized with a black woman, which helped keep southern Democrats in Smith's column.
In 1929, Thomas G. Gunter of Benton County, MS was convicted of the murder of his son-in-law, Marlin Drew, on the testimony of his seven-year-old granddaughter, Dorothy Louise. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison.
Three months later, after his daughter Pearl gave birth to her fourth child, she confessed that she had killed Marlin during an argument over the paternity of her then-unborn child, and requested that her 63-year-old father be pardoned. Pearl said she had coached Dorothy Louise to implicate her father. She added it was always her intention to tell the truth after the birth of her baby, and that she could not bear the thought of it beginning its life in prison. Governor Bilbo then granted Gunter a 90-day suspension of sentence as Pearl was bound over for an appearance before the Grand Jury. After the Grand Jury indicted Pearl for murder and perjury, Pearl was arraigned and pled guilty. The judge, however, used his statutory discretion and suspended Pearl's sentence.
When Gunter's 90-day suspension expired in Feb. 1930, the governor denied his application for a pardon and ordered him to return to prison. The governor stated, "Somebody ought to be in the penitentiary all the time for the murder of a sleeping man. If Judge Pegram does not believe Mrs. Drew is guilty enough to serve her term, then the man convicted of her murder will have to serve his term. Husbands ought to have some protection." Gunter, however, refused to return to the penitentiary and as of Feb. 1931 when an account of the case was written, both he and Pearl had fled the state of Mississippi.
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 ("Ole Miss"), 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 Colleges and Secondary Schools then 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 American Association of 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 their dismissals 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 their tax bills and the legislature refused to approve his tax bills. At the end of his term, the State of Mississippi was effectively bankrupt. The state treasury had only $1,326.57 in its coffers, and the state was $11.5 million in debt.
Bilbo, whose actions had halted U.S. Department of Agriculture funding of the agricultural school at Mississippi State, was hired as a "consultant on public relations" for the USDA 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 Mississippi senior Senator Pat Harrison. Bilbo, whose base was among tenant farmers, hated the upper-class Harrison, who represented the rich planters and merchants. The feud started in 1936 when Harrison nominated Judge Holmes for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Bilbo disliked Holmes, dating back to the Russell case, and spoke against him for five hours. Bilbo was the only Senator to vote "no," and Holmes was confirmed.
Later that year, Harrison faced a primary challenge from former Governor Mike Conner. Bilbo supported Conner. Bilbo's former law partner Stewart C. "Sweep Clean" Broom, campaigned for Harrison. Harrison won reelection.
When the Senate majority leader's job opened up in 1937, Harrison ran and faced a close contest with Kentucky's Alben Barkley. Harrison's campaign manager asked Bilbo to consider voting for Harrison. Bilbo said he would vote for Harrison only if Harrison asked him personally. When asked if he would make the personal appeal to Bilbo, 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 his fellow Mississippian.
In the Senate, Bilbo supported Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Bilbo's outspoken support of segregation and white supremacy was 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, which would have deported twelve million black Americans to Liberia at federal expense to relieve unemployment. Bilbo 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. Bilbo, however, 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 because of 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.
No man can leave the Klan. He takes an oath not to do that. Once a Ku Klux, always a Ku Klux.
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.
Its purpose is to plant the seeds of devilment and trouble-breeding 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 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, which the other Confederate states and Oklahoma followed with similar changes through 1910, most of which survived court challenges. Bilbo's campaign was accused of provoking violence related to voting.
Critics accused Bilbo of giving war contracts out to his friends.
During the 1946 Democratic Senate primary in Mississippi, his last race, Bilbo was the subject of a series of attacks by journalist Hodding Carter, Jr., in his paper, the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times. He won that primary against three other opponents with 51.0 percent of the vote; one of his rivals was Nelson Trimble Levings, who owned a Mississippi plantation and was an investment banker in New York City. As usual, Bilbo faced no Republican opposition in the 1946 general election. Based on a request by liberal Democratic Senator Glen H. Taylor of Idaho, the newly elected Republican majority in the United States Senate refused to seat Bilbo for the term to which he was elected because of 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 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 eponym 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 sixty-nine 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 Ocshner Clinic at the time. After Bilbo died, the orderlies on duty left Bilbo's 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 five thousand 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.
Bilbo was satirized multiple times in popular culture.
| Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi
Lee M. Russell
Earl L. Brewer
| Governor of Mississippi
Lee M. Russell
| Governor of Mississippi
Martin Sennett Conner
Hubert D. Stephens
| U.S. Senator (Class 1) from Mississippi
Served alongside: Pat Harrison, James O. Eastland, Wall Doxey
John C. Stennis