BILL MINOR: The naming game changes with political, legal fortunes

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – Driving down Highway 63 into Moss Point, you come upon a directional road sign reading “Trent Lott International Airport.” Yes, that’s international as in an airline hub connecting passengers with other countries.
Except, Trent Lott International near Pascagoula doesn’t connect with anything. It’s one short runway and is only used by small private airplanes.
It’s one of the legacy trophies Trent collected when he was at the top of his political career in 2001 as Senate Majority Leader – and before Trent self-destructed by praising Strom Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist run for president. From there, Lott slid downhill, suddenly and mysteriously quitting his Senate seat in 2007.
Though the “international” airport is not a memorable legacy, the Trent Lott Leadership Institute at Ole Miss is, bringing in bright high school students to learn about the political system.
Worse than Lott’s fall from the pantheon of Mississippi’s historic political figures is that of his brother-in-law, Dickie Scruggs, the onetime “King of Torts.” Scruggs gave big bucks to Democrats and Republicans, but Ole Miss, his alma mater, was the prime recipient of his wealth. His name was about to go up on a newly-renovated music hall to which he had pledged $25 million the very day he was given a five year sentence after pleading guilty to attempted bribery of a state judge. The name came down.
The Lott/Scruggs episodes bring to mind how remembrances of two other once-prominent state political figures were unceremoniously erased. Both James O. Eastland and Theodore G. Bilbo had been United States senators with a large following. A new federal building on Jackson’s Capitol Street was expected to be named for Eastland. But it went nameless for six years because blacks objected. Finally, it was named for Dr. A.H. McCoy, an obscure African-American dentist. Eastland’s name was eventually put on a federal court building erected under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ironically, last year, federal courts moved into modern new building and Eastland’s named was dropped.
For two decades until 1981, a bronze statue of Bilbo, despised in the Senate for his ranting racial rhetoric, stood in the center of the state Capitol main floor. During a major remodeling of the Capitol under Gov. William Winter, Bilbo’s statue quietly wound up in a back room that mostly stays locked.
Public structures bearing names of two political elites – John Stennis and William Winter – remain revered and serve a broad spectrum of state and national interests.
State historic documents are housed and preserved in the $18 million William F. Winter Archives and History Building that honors Winter’s years of service on the state Archives and History Commission. Then, there is the Winter Center for Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss reflecting the former governor’s passion for promoting harmony in the state’s markedly biracial society.
Stennis, the state’s most respected statesman since L.Q. C. Lamar of post-Civil War fame, may best be known to Mississippians for the Stennis Space Center in Hancock County. But as a Navy veteran, I lean toward the nuclear-powered super aircraft carrier CVN-74 named for Stennis. Stennis isn’t remembered for wielding political power, but for building America’s arsenal of defense in a dangerous world.

Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.