BY JOE RUTHERFORD
Voters in the 1st Congressional District begin the process March 11 of electing the next full-term person to represent them in the U.S. House.
The history standing behind the March 11 voting – and a special election April 22 to fill the remaining months in former Rep. Roger Wicker’s seventh term – includes some of the most prominent congressmen of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Mississippi State University’s noted political scientist, Marty Wiseman, said the 1st District “certainly has had its share of influential people.”
So far, 12 different people have served from the 1st District, with one man, L.Q.C. Lamar, serving terms before and after the Civil War.
Lamar, who lived in and is buried in Oxford, is among the handful of most famous and influential Mississippians. He served in the House 1857 to 1861, when Mississippi seceded and joined the Confederate States of America, and again from 1873 to 1877, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Lamar later was President Grover Cleveland’s secretary of the Interior, then he was named associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He is the only Mississippian to have served on the highest court.
Lamar may be best known generally for his eulogy for Massachusetts Republican Sen. Charles Sumner, an abolitionist and architect of Reconstruction policies under which the South was governed after the Civil War. Lamar, who was a freshman representative when Sumner died in 1874, struck what has been praised as a conciliatory tone, placing a rhetorical balm on some of the lingering bitterness between the regions. He was included in John F. Kennedy’s noted book, “Profiles in Courage.”
However, some differ in their assessments.
Elizabeth Payne, a Nettleton native who is professor of history at the University of Mississippi, sees Lamar as a voice for the same elitist, white control that ran the South before the Civil War.
“For Lamar, national reconciliation’ meant returning control to those white male leaders who had shaped the distribution of power before the Civill War. He was brilliant in a rhetorical sense and allied with the class interests of the northern industrialists,” Payne said.
Wiseman cited among other influential 1st District representatives:
n John Allen, a Tupelo Democrat whose oratorical skills helped build broad coalitions from 1885 to 1901, when he left the House and unsuccessfully sought a U.S. Senate seat. It was Allen – best known for the campaign name “Private John Allen” – who helped bring Tupelo to national note as a new Southern city through a speech seeking a federal fish hatchery that now bears his name. He later served as commissioner of the St. Louis World Exposition. It was a world’s fair in 1904 marking the beginning of the modern era.
Payne said Allen was allied “with what historians call the Redeemers,’ those who held power before the war but allied themselves with northern industrialists to gain power that had been taken from them during the Civil War. He supported the Mississippi Levee system and other internal improvements. But his talk of voting for a private’ was an effort to tap into the populist vote, not a genuine effort to improve the lives of ordinary people.”
n John Rankin, also a Democrat from Tupelo, was elected in 1920 and served until 1953. He was a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, except on race issues, and he was influential in establishing the Tennessee Valley Authority and Rural Electrification Administration, and won authorization with legislation leading eventually to construction of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.
Payne, who notes she has indirect family connections to Rankin, said, “He co-sponsored the bill to create the TVA – although some ecologists think that was a disastrous decision. He supported the Rural Electrification Act and the G.I. Bill of Rights. At the same time, he was a vicious racist. He blamed battle defeats during World War II on the cowardice of black soldiers. His assertion flew in the face of the documented bravery of, for example, the Tuskegee Flyers. He also was an aggressive member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and refused to investigate the KKK, saying it was an “old American institution.” In fact, it was not; it was relatively new.
n Jamie L. Whitten, a Democrat from Charleston, became the 1st District’s congressman in 1973. Whitten had served the 2nd District since 1941, but redistricting moved him into the 1st District. He was chairman of the Agriculture Committee, the Appropriations Committee and served in the House longer than any other member, retiring in 1995.
“I tell you,” Wiseman said, “when Jamie Whitten was chairman of House Appropriations and John Stennis was chairman of Senate Appropriations, that was a powerful combination.”
Wiseman said the two Appropriations chairmanships were the equivalent of much larger whole states’ delegations and were an equalizer despite Mississippi’s diminishing numerical representation in the House.
Payne sees Whitten as a white Southern politician who changed with the times.
“He saw crucial transitions,” she said. “Beginning as an arch conservative on race, he voted against all the civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s. Like George Wallace – and whether for purely political or heartfelt reasons, we do not know – he later apologized for his segregationist views. It is clear, however, that he clashed with the values of the rising Republican Party in Mississippi.”
Payne said she believes the “crucible of Mississippi politics is about race, hierarchy, and class. Whitten is the best example of someone who dealt with these issues over a lifetime of service. The next representative should take lessons from him.”
Contact Joe Rutherford
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