By Bill Minor
JACKSON – It was indeed an honor for me last week to be among those paying tribute to retiring House Speaker Billy McCoy, the battling Democrat from the hills of Northeast Mississippi whose 32 year career significantly shaped the state’s most memorable legislative achievements in the 20th century.
But it was the eight years – especially the last four – as Speaker of the Legislature’s lower chamber, for which William J. McCoy will best be remembered in state political history.
The Booneville native, who never lost his hill country twang, nor forgot for a moment his humble background, will be known as the stubby guy who gave meaning to the Democratic label and stood firm in the path of an unprecedented Republican political machine driven by Gov. Haley Barbour.
Not commonly known is that the 69-year-old McCoy remained steadfast at his speaker’s post, enduring GOP harassment, even while his body was physically weakened from a stroke he suffered three years ago on the operating table during emergency colon re-section surgery.
Longtime Democratic Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville says McCoy has “barbed wire guts.” McCoy, who calls Rienzi home, had only decided to step down from his legislative seat because of his family’s urging, not the GOP bulldozer.
My link to the McCoy legacy dates back to 1948 when covering my first full session of the Legislature, I watched a Prentiss County representative named Elmer McCoy take the floor and call up a bill from his Education Committee that would have set minimum salaries for teachers. Immediately, a racist lawmaker sprang to his feet and asked if the bill meant both black (using the N word) and white teachers. “It would apply to all teachers,” McCoy replied. Within minutes, the bill was shipped off to the legislative graveyard.
Elmer McCoy was Billy McCoy’s father. That Elmer McCoy would propose racial equalization of teacher pay almost two decades before it became reality is indicative of the roots from which Billy McCoy derived his compassion to help Mississippi’s many thousands of “little people.” Of note, he recognized senior black lawmakers’ ability, assigning a number to power committees which they previously never held.
In the 2011 elections, Republicans roundly attacked McCoy for not appointing any GOPers to chair committees. Behind the scenes, Haley Barbour had pushed the combative McCoy too far. Barbour got pledges from Republican House members to oppose the speaker at every turn. McCoy retaliated: Republicans could kiss chairmanships goodbye.
At McCoy’s testimonial, planners – essentially House Democrats – were wise to make a gesture toward bipartisanship by putting both incoming Gov. Phil Bryant and Speaker-in-waiting Philip Gunn of Clinton on the speaking program. Both were genial, but honest to admit they had tangled with McCoy on occasions.
Maybe that’s the last time – or for a long time – Mississippi’s House Dems and Repubs will be seen breaking bread together. Starting on Jan. 3, 2012, historic change comes to Mississippi’s legislative branch when Republicans for the first time since post-Civil War days will be in control of both the House and Senate. The great irony is that Republicans back then were largely black – many ex-slaves – and were commonly referred to as Radical Republicans. The white “Redeemer” Democrats swept them out of power in 1876 and so-called “Mississippi Democrats” reigned for almost a century afterward. Now state political history is being totally rewritten.
But back to William J. McCoy, the real-dirt farmer who goes home to the hill country after 32 years battling for progressive governmental policies under the Capitol dome. Doubtless, Mississippi can say: Well done, thy good and faithful servant.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.