By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Ohio college professor Benjamin Sperry, who once taught at Delta State University, was surprised to find virtually no printed literature about the incredible political career of Walter Sillers, the Delta baron who ruled for 40 years over Mississippi’s House of Representatives. So he began researching and lecturing on his Sillers findings.
Last week, the Mississippi Historical Society’s annual meeting had Sperry, now at Cleveland State University, talk on “Mr. Delta: Walter Sillers, Jr. and fifty Years in Mississippi Politics.” Hopefully, there’s a book coming out of it.
The Rosedale lawmaker not only ran the House with an iron hand, he changed much of Mississippi’s history – not for the better – during the 20th century.
It’s hard to imagine that Sillers, (nicknamed “Red” Sillers in college, certainly not because he showed the slightest tinge of being a Communist) could for a half century hold back state progress on civil rights, public education and legislative apportionment.
Sperry does a pretty good job of highlighting snapshots of Sillers’ wide-ranging power, describing him as “probably the most influential in Mississippi politics” of anyone during his time, even while never aspiring to higher office above his speakership perch.
Sperry claims that Sillers once said that he had never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1932. That’s very possible since Sillers was one of the key architects behind the 1948 Dixiecrat revolt aimed at pulling the South’s electoral votes away from President Harry Truman and fielding a so-called States’ Rights Party ticket. Few may also remember that Sillers was behind Mississippi’s attempted party bolt from Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 when a special session of the Legislature had to be called to create a “pink ticket” of presidential electors loyal to FDR to deliver the state’s vote to Roosevelt.
Sillers, as Sperry relates, in 1916 had taken the seat in the Mississippi House formerly held by his aristocratic father. As Sperry describes it, this was the “high tide of Progressivism” and the first term of populist Gov. Theodore G. Bilbo. “He (Sillers) did everything he could to thwart Bilbo’s program,” Sperry said. Sillers was elected House Speaker in 1944 and held the job until his death in 1966.
Only once – in 1956 – was Sillers challenged for the speakership, by a then Grenada County lawmaker, William F. Winter, one of the World War II veterans who was elected to the House in what was thought a wave of progressivism to challenge the entrenched Old Guard.
Winter had campaigned in 1955 for J.P. Coleman, the tall, aggressive ex-judge from the hill country of East Mississippi. Coleman won the governorship in an upset, but Sillers opposed him. When Coleman signaled that he wanted to establish his administration’s leadership team in the Legislature, it was thought he would endorse Winter’s campaign to oust the powerful Sillers as House Speaker. In a celebrated Greenwood caucus with Sillers and his coterie of key insiders, Coleman pulled the rug out from under Winter and maintained he would keep hands-off.
Though without Coleman’s support, Winter declined to abandon his committed backers and continued his race against Sillers. He still got 41 votes, though far short of the majority he needed to win. In the aftermath of Winter’s unsuccessful challenge, Sillers stripped Winter and his supporters of all but minor committee assignments.
The monumental Minimum Foundation School Program of the early 1950s for the first time equalized state funding between white and black teachers, and enacted the first school building program for black children. It also launched an historic consolidation of the state’s 1,500 school districts to 150. Sillers only withdrew his make-or-break opposition to the bill when Bolivar County – his home county – would keep its six (yes, six) school districts. Bolivar still has the six districts.
For 40 years Sillers derailed reapportionment of the Legislature, even though the 1890 State Constitution called for redistricting after each federal census. But because the constitution used the word “may” instead of “shall” in its reapportionment section, Sillers interpreted it as never and ruled out of order all redistricting bills. Not until after his death was the Legislature fully reapportioned.
CORRECTION: In last week’s column, I erroneously used the figure $500 million in the amount Mercer Investment company was paid by PERS, the state retirement system, for consulting. The figure should have been $500,000.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.