By Bill Minor
JACKSON – They called him “Red” Sillers in college, certainly not from his politics or philosophy. Walter Sillers’ red hair and freckles were the reason for the nickname.
Of all the state legislators I’ve seen come and go in six decades of closely following the Mississippi Legislature, none was ever nearly as powerful as Walter Sillers, the legendary speaker of the Mississippi House.
Sillers was once appropriately called a “Delta baron” by Gov. J.P. Coleman when he virtually single-handedly derailed Coleman’s drive to overhaul the state’s horse-and-buggy 1890 Constitution. Arguably, Sillers, who served 40 years as a member of the Mississippi House, 22 of it as Speaker, was the last of the storied era of aristocratic Delta planter-politicians who controlled state government for a half century after Reconstruction.
Two things brought Sillers to my attention: First, I was given a 1972 masters’ degree dissertation at Ole Miss by Thomas R. Melton titled “Mr. Speaker: a Biography of Walter Sillers,” and second, the current onslaught by Mississippi Republicans to oust Democratic Speaker Billy McCoy of Rienzi in a campaign contending McCoy wields too much power.
(It’s already a known fact that Republican Gov. Haley Barbour went all-out to beat McCoy in the 2007 election cycle by recruiting a candidate – a doctor, mind you – to oppose the veteran McCoy for reelection to his Northeast Mississippi House seat. When that failed, House Republicans lined up in support of a conservative Democrat, Rep. Jeff Smith of Columbus, who narrowly lost a race against McCoy for the speakership.
Having covered Sillers for the last 19 years of his speaker’s reign (he died in 1966), I’d say that any comparison of McCoy to Sillers – as to the exercise of power or which was more iron fisted – McCoy comes off as a mere schoolboy, while Sillers would be the strap-wielding headmaster.
When Sillers and his close-knit allies were in their heyday, there were no Republicans, at least none who would publicly identify himself as a Republican. Everyone (including Sillers) was a “Mississippi Democrat,” and partisanship wasn’t an issue. But factionalism was. It mattered, for instance, whether you were a Bilboite or a Johnsonite or a Colemanite – each a governor that Sillers disliked and whose program he set out to scuttle.
Even before he became speaker in 1944, Sillers was one of a handful of powerful House members known as the “Big Four” who served as a wrecking crew of gubernatorial programs, especially when rambunctious Theodore G. Bilbo was governor. Even in 1930-31 when the state was in desperate financial straits, Sillers helped block Bilbo’s tax measures to raise badly needed revenue. However, after his friend, Martin “Mike” Conner, succeeded Bilbo in 1932, Sillers reluctantly supported Conner’s enactment of the nation’s first general sales tax, but inserted a number of tax exemptions for his pet agricultural interests.
In the Sillers biography, Melton relied heavily on the Bolivar countian’s personal papers at Delta State University (then a college) and he barely scratched the surface of how the lawmaker wielded his power. Sillers deftly sponsored measures to deny civil rights for black citizens and sought to cripple programs aimed at equalizing spending on education between the black and white races. A prime example: when Gov. Hugh White in 1954 pushed through the landmark Minimum Foundation Education program, (which amazingly consolidated 1,500 school districts into 150) Sillers dropped his opposition only when Bolivar County was allowed to keep its six school districts to virtually assure continued racial segregation.
Nor does Melton mention how Sillers personally blocked reapportionment of the Legislature for decades by rejecting bills on grounds that the state Constitution’s supposedly mandatory decennial redistricting of legislative seats used the word “may” instead of “shall” (and he interpreted as never). It was not until the early 1970s, after Sillers’ death, that legislative seats were reallocated, based on population. As long as Sillers held sway, no African-American sat in the Legislature. Not until 1968, two years after Sillers’ death, did Robert Clark became the first black to be seated in the Mississippi Legislature since Reconstruction.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.