By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Remarkably little has been written about the late Sen. James O. Eastland, who was Mississippi’s most powerful political figure of the 20th century. Except for a 74-year-old post office/courthouse in Jackson belatedly named for him, there are few tangible reminders of “Big Jim’s” 45-year career in the U.S. Senate when he dominated state politics and blocked federal civil rights legislation.
An exceedingly valuable recent book on Mississippi’s enigmatic society, “The Senator and the Share Cropper,” draws a remarkable parallel between Eastland’s plantation life and that of a fellow Sunflower Countian, Fannie Lou Hamer, the stubby ex-cotton field hand whose powerful voice made her an icon of the civil rights movement.
Written by Chris Myers Asch who holds a doctorate in history from Duke, for 10 years he taught elementary school in Sunflower County with Teach for America. Asch provides a revealing insight into plantation life in the heart of Mississippi’s Delta, viewed from a white plantation owner’s perspective juxtaposed against the subservient black laboring class. Blacks sewed the rows of rich soil, hoed unwanted weeds, then picked the fluffy white cotton bolls that for a century brought wealth to the white landowners.
While in the off-season white plantation families could travel abroad, the blacks in shotgun plantation shacks bulging with kids found their only outlet singing sacred songs in their churches and listening to leather-lunged black preachers extolling faith in God as the ultimate salvation from their oppressive plantation lives.
For a black who challenged the system, the consequences could be severe. In blood-curdling detail, Asch relates how Woods Eastland, the senator’s father, in 1904 presided over the torture and stake-burning of a black couple for the fatal shooting of Woods’ brother before a crowd outside a black church. That 1904 episode, Asch implies, set the stage for emergence of cigar-chomping James Oliver Eastland as a dominant Mississippi political figure as well as a leading obstructionist in the U.S. Senate. Time described him in 1956 as “the most dangerous demagogue” in Congress for blocking civil rights legislation.
When Lyndon Johnson acceded to the presidency in 1963 after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Eastland realized that while LBJ had been his friend as a senator, the arm-twisting Texan would be a tougher foe for him to derail civil rights bills. Jim was right. Johnson rammed through the 1964 civil rights and the 1965 Voting Rights acts which began to tear down the barriers to full citizenship for blacks that Fannie Lou Hamer championed.
As a spokesman for seating the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Hamer had a rare opportunity to tell the nation her personal story of how Mississippi authorities harassed blacks if they sought to register to vote or protest for their rights.
“We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she declared in a riveting argument before the DNC credentials committee. It was broadcast by TV networks on a Saturday afternoon, reaching a massive national audience.
Hamer died of cancer in 1977, with her “sick and tired” words etched into her tombstone. That same year, Eastland’s health too began to deteriorate, and he wavered on seeking a seventh term in 1978. Concerned about leaving a legacy as an arch-foe of civil rights, he sought to make amends. Surprisingly, Eastland showed up at the state Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner and took a seat beside Aaron Henry, the NAACP and state Democratic Party leader. Afterwards I wrote that I now believed “anything is possible in this world of ours.”
Eastland stepped down in 1978. For four decades politicians considering a race for state office would beat a path to Big Jim’s door in Doddsville to get his blessing. Yet, his Senate successor in 1978 did not get his endorsement. In fact, he was a Republican, Thad Cochran.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at email@example.com.