JACKSON – Earlier this month, John Hampton Stennis, William Winter and I sat down for lunch at the Mayflower Cafe, Jackson’s legendary eating spot on Capitol Street. The occasion was to mark the day 60 years ago that a humble, little-known country judge named John C. Stennis surprisingly was elected to the U. S. Senate.
As Mississippi political history records, John Stennis served in the Senate the next 40 years, gaining his place among the state’s most distinguished statesmen. Only after sustaining traumatic physical episodes which would have long ago been fatal to one with a less-sturdy body did he quit.
Each of us – John Hampton, William and I – as well as the Mayflower – had a sentimental role in the November 4, 1947, special Senate election that propelled Stennis to an upset victory.
John Hampton, the senator’s only son, did yeoman duty in the campaign for his father, everything from chauffeur to go-fer. Winter, then an Ole Miss law student and newly-elected state legislator, made speeches for Stennis and headed Stennis’ campus committee. For me, the 1947 senatorial race was the first of a great many political campaigns I would cover in 30 years as state correspondent for The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune.
As for the Mayflower – then owned and managed by Mike Kountouris and John Gouras – it more or less “adopted” Stennis – whose campaign headquarters was located a block down the street in two rooms at the King Edward Hotel. Before heading off on the campaign trail each day, Stennis stopped by the Mayflower. His breakfast was always on the house. And free eats if he came in from an exhausting day on the road.
“We all liked Judge Stennis and we decided to support him,” Kountouris once told me.
You would have never known from his campaign literature that Stennis, from tiny, rural Kemper County, had been Phi Beta Kappa at the Universirty of Virginia Law School.
Actually, his secret weapon turned out to be solid support from alumni of Mississippi State University (then College), and the Agricultural Extension Service.
The special election had been called to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Theodore G. Bilbo, the stormy white supremacist icon. Earlier that year, the Senate had refused to seat Bilbo on grounds of alleged racial intimidation in his 1946 re-election campaign leaving his seat in limbo until he died.
As a state Circuit Court judge in East Central Mississippi, Stennis was far less known statewide than several of his five opponents in the race. Heavily favored to win was Democratic U. S. Rep. William M. Colmer of Pascagoula, a five-term Congress veteran. Colmer had the backing of leaders of the brewing Dixiecrat movement that a year later would orchestrate Mississippi’ s historic race-based break with the National Democratic Party.
In what is still considered one of Mississippi’ s biggest political upsets of all time, Stennis led the entire field, edging Colmer by some 6,000 votes. Though he had only a plurality, under the existing “high-man-wins” special election rule, Stennis automatically won without a run-off. Had he faced a runoff with Colmer, it’s doubtful Stennis could have won and the state would have been deprived of his distinguished service in the U.S. Senate.
Significantly, powerful Mississippi House Speaker Walter Sillers, a top Dixiecrat, saw to it in 1948 that Stennis’ fluke victory wasn’t going to happen again. He rewrote state election law to require a runoff in any special election to fill an open seat in Congress.
What might have happened
Looking back at Mississippi political history that has unfolded since, there’s good reason to believe Stennis’ election back in 1947 delayed for three decades the state’ s transition into a Republican stronghold. Colmer had already broken most ties to the National Democratic Party, and likely would have soon converted to the GOP.
It’s noteworthy that now, 30 years after Republican Thad Cochran was elected in 1978 to succeed Stennis, both of Mississippi’ s Senate seats are in Republican hands.
John Hampton brought along some of his father’s 1947 campaign literature, one of which contained the pledge for which John Cornelius Stennis would be remembered in Mississippi history: “I want to plow a straight furrow down to the end of my row.”
Such a simple, yet deeply sincere, political campaign statement would almost certainly be laughed at in today’s sharply divided, TV sound-bite politics. Rightly it could be said: they don’t make ’em like John Stennis anymore.
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215.