Power Of The Southern Bloc In Congress

The reduction and anti-lynching failures occurred during the heyday of southern demagogues in Congress. Innumerable racist slanders were uttered on the House and Senate floors with virtual impunity from 1890 through the 1920s. Among the practitioners of white supremacist bile was James Kimble Vardaman of Mississippi, a powerful orator who served as his state’s governor from 1904 to 1908 before winning election in 1912 to a single term in the U.S. Senate. Known by his followers as the “White Chief,” Vardaman ran state and federal campaigns that unabashedly supported white supremacy and constantly sought to take money earmarked for black schools. “To educate a negro is to spoil a good field hand,” Vardaman once declared.162 Others of this ilk included Ben Tillman of South Carolina, a 23-year veteran of the Senate and the architect of disenfranchisement in South Carolina; the Populist-turned-race baiter Tom Watson of Georgia, who served a term in the House from 1891 to 1893 and a partial term in the U.S. Senate 30 years later; and James Thomas Heflin, a Representative and Senator of Alabama, who said the right to vote was “an inherent right with the white man and a privilege with the Negro.”163

Congressional Segregationists/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_vardaman_heflin_james_lc_dig_ggbain_13322.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Left to right: U.S. Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi, U.S. Representative James Heflin of Alabama, and U.S. Senator Ollie James of Kentucky built their congressional careers on promoting segregation and white supremacy.
For such men, white supremacy was a closely held belief. For others, it was a mechanism to engage voters. The southern political system promoted—and even rewarded—a certain level of recklessness, sensationalism, and demagoguery. Race became the most potent topic available for striking powerful chords with southern voters, who by 1900 were almost universally white and often disengaged from politics. “Deprived of the normal party channels of rising to power and getting support in elections, politicians were practically forced to blare recklessly in an effort to become known to an amorphous public,” notes historian J. Morgan Kousser.164

Southern Members of Congress who opposed race reforms in the 1910s and 1920s soon became influential enough to thwart civil rights reforms in later decades. Accruing seniority, many ascended to powerful positions on Capitol Hill during the 1930s. Benefiting from the longevity conferred by their party—Democrats held a virtual lock on elective office in the South—many southern House Members served long terms in secure districts, earning important leadership posts. For instance, when Democrats gained control of the House in 1931, Southerners chaired 29 of 47 committees—including virtually all the most influential panels: Ways and Means (James W. Collier of Mississippi), Rules (Edward W. Pou of North Carolina), Rivers and Harbors (Joseph J. Mansfield of Texas), Naval Affairs (Carl Vinson of Georgia), Military Affairs (Percy Quin of Mississippi), Judiciary (Hatton Sumners of Texas), Interstate and Foreign Commerce (Sam Rayburn of Texas), Banking and Currency (Henry B. Steagall of Alabama), Appropriations (Joseph W. Byrns of Tennessee), and Agriculture (John Marvin Jones of Texas). Of the 10 most attractive committees, Southerners chaired nine (J. Charles Linthicum of Maryland, a border state, chaired the tenth, the Foreign Affairs Committee).165 Southerners also held two of the top three positions in House leadership: John Nance Garner of Texas served as Speaker, and John McDuffie of Alabama was the Majority Whip.

In the Senate, which went Democratic with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as President in 1932, southern influence, although less pronounced, was nonetheless significant. Southerners chaired 13 of the chamber’s 33 committees in 1933, including some of the most influential panels: Agriculture and Forestry (Ellison D. Smith of South Carolina), Appropriations (Carter Glass of Virginia), Banking and Currency (Duncan U. Fletcher of Florida), Commerce (Hubert D. Stephens of Mississippi), Finance (Pat Harrison of Mississippi), Military Affairs (Morris Sheppard of Texas), and Naval Affairs (Park Trammell of Florida). In addition, Walter F. George of Georgia wielded the chairman’s gavel on the Privileges and Elections Committee, through which any voting rights bill would have to pass. Setting the chamber’s agenda was Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas, who served in that capacity until his death in 1937.

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162For more on Vardaman, see William F. Holmes, The White Chief: James K. Vardaman (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970) and James Kimble Vardaman: Southern Commoner (Jackson, MS: Hederman Brothers, 1981). See also “James Kimble Vardaman,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present.

163Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: 170.

164Ibid., 232–236, quotations on page 237.

165For House Members’ perceptions of committee rankings based on desirability, see Stewart, “Committee Hierarchies in the Modernizing House, 1875–1947.”