Theodore Bilbo

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Theodore G. Bilbo
Former U.S. Senator from Mississippi
From: January 3, 1935 – January 3, 1947
Predecessor Hubert D. Stephens
Successor John Stennis
Former Governor of Mississippi
From: January 17, 1928 – January 19, 1932
Lieutenant Cayton Bidwell Adam
Predecessor Dennis Murphree
Successor Martin Sennett Connor
Former Governor of Mississippi
From: January 18, 1916 – January 20, 1920
Lieutenant Lee M. Russell
Predecessor Earl Brewer
Successor Lee M. Russell
Former Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi
From: January 16, 1912 – January 18, 1916
Governor Earl Brewer
Predecessor Luther Manship
Successor Lee Russell
Former State Senator from Mississippi
From: 1908–1912
Predecessor ???
Successor ???
Party Democrat
Spouse(s) Lillian S. Herrington (died 1899)
Linda Ruth Gaddy

Theodore Gilmore Bilbo, Sr. (October 13, 1877 – August 21, 1947), known as "The Man,"[1] was a Klansman and longtime Democratic Party politician from Mississippi who served as a governor of the state from 1916–20 and 1928–32, and as a U.S. senator from 1935–47. A towering de facto leader among white supremacist circles, he was infamous for praising Nazi racial philosophy and known for extreme, inflammatory rhetoric.

Inspired by the Progressive Movement, Bilbo's political career was marked with demagoguery characterized by left-wing attacks against capitalist interests and racial bigotry against ethnic minorities. His solid support for modern liberal icon Franklin D. Roosevelt and the president's New Deal programs garnered the endearment and admiration of the Democratic establishment (which disregarded his naked racism) during the 1930s at the national level, though eventually was widely denounced as the aftermath of the World War II years resulted in an awakening of the consequences of unchecked racial demagoguery; national Democrats soon expediently sought to avoid the discrediting of their own reputations for their long-held, entrenched ties with Bilbo.

Early life and career

Theodore Gilmore Bilbo was born on October 13, 1877, during the year Reconstruction ended, in Juniper Grove, Mississippi.[1] At the age of fifteen, he enrolled in public schools and graduated four years later, subsequently entering a career of teaching briefly. He attended Peabody College and Vanderbilt Law School though graduated from neither institution.[1]

In 1898, Bilbo married the former Lillian Herrington of Wiggins, who died two years later, leaving him with a one-year old daughter, Jessie Forrest.[2] He subsequently married Linda Gaddy, with whom he had a son, Theodore Gilmore Bilbo, Jr.

Bilbo's political career began in the Progressive Era,[3] running for circuit clerk in 1903 though losing to a one-armed Baptist minister[2] and Confederate veteran.[1] He later was elected a state senator, serving from 1908 to 1912. In the upper body of the legislature, Bilbo aligned with the progressive faction in support of populist governor James K. Vardaman, earning the praise of the latter in a periodical statement: "The people of South Mississippi have an able champion in the person of Senator Bilbo."[2]

Statewide office, 1912–20

In 1912, Bilbo was elected lieutenant governor and later governor four years afterwards.[3] His tenure as lieutenant governor under Earl L. Brewer was marked with corruption and factionalism, acting as de facto governor when Brewer traveled outside Mississippi.[4] Bilbo, accused by Brewer of granting pardons to felons and accepting bribes, was indicted along with George Hobbs, a state senator, for bribery by a grand jury in Vicksburg. Brewer testified as a witness in support of prosecution that implicated Bilbo of attempting to establish a new Delta county, though the pair were acquitted by a jury following the defense attorney's accusations that the trial was a political maneuver to damage Bilbo's career.[4]

Propelled to the governorship, left-wing measures enacted

The publicity created by the trial was capitalized by Bilbo when running for governor in 1915, during which he began referring to himself as "The Man."[4] Appealing to the radical, populistic "hill" rednecks, he spoke in favor of additional education appropriations, stronger enforcement of state Prohibition, increased taxes on the rich, and the construction of new roads, trouncing four Democratic rivals in the primary. (due to disenfranchisement of blacks that hollowed the Republican Party into oblivion at the time, emerging victorious in the Democratic primary was tantamount to election)

In a biographical dissertation on Bilbo, Charles P. Smith writes that Bilbo's swearing-in as governor during January 1916 culminated in the peak of "progressivism in the Magnolia State."[4] A supporter of Bilbo, Martin Sennett Connor, was elected Speaker of the state House of Representatives, allowing for Vardaman–Bilbo forces to enact numerous progressive initiatives—appropriations for schools and roads were increased, the tax structure was revised, a tuberculosis sanitarium and State Highway Commission were established, along with the State Board of Pardons.[4]

Failed bids for Congress and state legislature

Due to state law at the time prohibiting Mississippi governors from immediately succeeding themselves, Bilbo ran for U.S. House of Representatives in 1918 from the state's 6th congressional district.[5] However, his association with Vardaman proved a hindrance by the late 1910s due to his progressive predecessor's vain isolationist opposition to American involvement in World War I. He also campaigned in favor of a "dipping vat law" for cattle unpopular among the district's farming constituency, overestimating his influence and losing in the primary to Paul B. Johnson, Sr., a lawyer from Hattiesburg.[5]

Bilbo sought an open seat in the state House of Representatives in the 1920 elections, though "lost badly" and resumed law practice.[1]

Return to the governorship

At the inaugural address of his second, nonconsecutive gubernatorial term, Bilbo announced the relocation of the University of Mississippi from Oxford to the state's capital, Jackson.[1]

Bilbo's totalitarian handling of the state's education system sparked controversy; his proposals included establishing the position of a commissioner of higher education and "thorough reorganization," which upon their defeat, resulted in the dismissal of college presidents and faculty members by the college board at his behest.[1] As a result, the accreditation of Mississippi's colleges were revoked by a number of agencies for a span of two years.

U.S. Senate

Bilbo unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1932,[1][6] though two years later sought a U.S. Senate seat and denied the renomination of the "colorless,"[7] more conservative[8] incumbent Democratic senator Hubert D. Stephens, proceeding to victory in the general election.[9] In the primary, Bilbo garnered his usual support from the economically poor "hills" as opposed to the pro-Bourbon Delta region. His virulent campaign rife with attacks against Wall Street were noticed and reported on by The New York Times, and was compared to Louisiana demagogic Huey Long.

1930s: hardline New Deal politics

Bilbo was one of President Roosevelt's strongest supporters.

He was known during the 1930s as a hardline rubber stamp for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal agenda, gaining attention in 1935 for feuding with Sen. Long.[9] According to Robert L. Fleegler, he "amassed a strong progressive voting record, supporting New Deal legislation such as public housing that gave many southern representatives pause."

Bilbo was the first U.S. senator to openly support the the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937,[10][11] known as the "court packing plan," introduced by President Roosevelt to expand the number of Supreme Court justices for the purpose of immediate liberal appointments to reverse numerous judicial restraint rulings that struck down portions of the New Deal as unconstitutional. Bilbo told Mississippi voters:[12]

You can put me down a thousand percent for President Roosevelt's court proposal.

—Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo (D–MS), cir. 1937

Filibustering anti-lynching legislation

For a more detailed treatment, see Gavagan–Van Nuys–Wagner Act.

In a 1938 filibuster against anti-lynching legislation, the Wagner–Van Nuys Act introduced by Northern Democratic senators Robert F. Wagner and Frederick Van Nuys, Bilbo disparaged NAACP leader Walter F. White as a "flat-nosed Ethiopian" and said on the Senate floor that the bill would "open the floodgates of hell in the South" by encouraging black men to rape white women.[13] Although most Southern Democratic senators opposed anti-lynching legislation on veiled arguments without overt race-baiting, Bilbo notably employed demagogic propaganda.

While filibustering the 1937–38 anti-lynching bill, Bilbo gave his infamous "floodgates" diatribe:[14]

If you succeed in the passage of this bill, you will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots, and crime will be increased a thousandfold; upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded Anglo-Saxon white Southern men will not tolerate.

—Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo (D–MS), January 1938

Pushing for the deportation of blacks en masse

Even after Bilbo's initial advocacy of deporting blacks to Africa, a move directly motivated and inspired by the activities of black nationalists including Marcus Garvey,[13][15] national media outlets gave barely, if any public coverage. The New York Times was the only prominent publication to mention it, in one of its back-page stories without providing comment.[16] When he subsequently introduced formal legislation on the repatriation of blacks to Africa, Bilbo extolled Nazi racial theories:

The Germans appreciate the importance of race values. They understand that racial improvement is the greatest asset that any country can have. . . They know, as few other nations have realized, that the impoverishment of race values contributes more to the impairment and destruction of a civilization than any other agency.

—Bilbo, May 24, 1938

The only newspaper on the national level which gave any significant coverage was Newsweek, which described the senator as "finally cut loose with his first unprovoked outburst of rabble rousing," and said of the overall lack of press attention, "Hardly a newspaper reported it."[16] However, the Newsweek article failed to mention Bilbo's praise of Nazi racial ideology.

1940s: reelection, furthered bigotry

Throughout his political career, Harry Truman was heavily entangled with and entrenched among racists including Bilbo.

Bilbo ran for reelection in 1940 and won renomination in the Democratic primary over former governor Hugh White. After winning the general election, a member of the Roosevelt Administration congratulated his victory and regarded him "a real friend of liberal government."[17] In return, Bilbo boasted of being "100 percent for Roosevelt...and the New Deal."[18] Despite his reputation as a notorious shrill demagogue, The New York Times referred to him as an "obscure member" of the Senate without mentioning his racial bigotry.[19]

According to Fleegler:[19]

Bilbo’s racism did not seem to bother his fellow Democrats.

—"Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism, 1938–1947," p. 11.

When Bilbo had just won Democratic renomination in 1940 during the primary, he bolstered the party establishment nationwide, campaigning in fifteen states. Bilbo gave a keynote address to the Young Democrats of New York, and speeches in Pennsylvania received the praise from the state's pro–New Deal senator Joe Guffey as being "tops among Southern statesman as a campaigner."[19] In Missouri, Bilbo campaigned for—and was thanked by—the state's U.S. senator and future president Harry S. Truman, who wrote after being reelected: "Can’t thank you enough for what you did in Missouri."

In late June 1945, Bilbo launched a three-hour long filibuster against appropriations for the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), attacking Jews, "n*****s," and "white Gentiles."[20] The speech, which lambasted harmonious racial relations in the workplace, was prepared by his equally bigoted and vitriolic Mississippi colleague John E. Rankin of the state's 1st congressional district.

Support for Henry Wallace

Although Bilbo by 1945 broke with a number of Roosevelt Administration–spearheaded initiatives, namely price controls, due to his own old-school progressivism coming to a clash with the new direction of modern liberalism shaped during the war years, he was a staunch supporter of far-left Communist sympathizer Henry A. Wallace, Roosevelt's vice president during his third term subsequently nominated for Secretary of Commerce. Although his less liberal Southern colleagues disdained Wallace, Bilbo announced:[21]

I am for Henry Wallace in the committee, in the Senate, and all out-of-doors at home and abroad.

—Bilbo, January 23, 1945

Bilbo's expressed support for Wallace was not limited to public announcements, telling Summit Sun editor Mary D. Cain in a private correspondence that the confirmation battle over Wallace was "really a fight between the interest of the common man and the big money interest of the country," adding that Wallace's vision "represents the ideals and policies of President Roosevelt, the world's greatest humanitarian and Democrat."[21]

Wallace's nomination was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 1, 1945, by a 56–32 vote.[22]

Association with Robert Byrd, KKK membership revealed

Byrd and Bilbo wrote letters exchanging racist sentiments.

Bilbo was a leader among other racist Democrats, including the Exalted Cyclops Robert Byrd. In his book When Jim Crow Met John Bull, Graham Smith referred to a letter Bilbo received from the Exalted Cyclops Robert Byrd when on the 1945 controversy raging over the idea of racially integrating the military.

Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.

He had earlier written Bilbo:

I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side.

1946 voter suppression, denial of Senate readmission, subsequent death

In 1946, after four white men beat a black Army veteran for attempting to register to vote, Senator Bilbo delivered a radio address urging every "every red-blooded American who believes in the superiority and integrity of the white race to get out and see that no n***** votes."[23] Subsequently, violent voter suppression became rampant in the primary as white Mississippi Democrats formed mobs twice preventing a group of black veterans, including Medgar Evers, from voting in Decatur. In true Democratic tradition, Bilbo won the rigged primary election with 51% in a four way contest.

Southern Democratic Sen. Allen Ellender defended Bilbo during the Senate investigation.

After being reelected due to a violent campaign marked with rampant suppression and fraud, left-wing Idaho senator Glen H. Taylor requested an investigation of Bilbo's conduct by the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.[24] The anti-Bilbo movement gained traction particularly after the Mississippi senator told Meet the Press in an interview where he admitted of Ku Klux Klan membership:[24]

No man can leave the Klan. He takes an oath not to do that. Once a Ku Klux, always a Ku Klux.

—Bilbo, August 9, 1946

John H. Overton attempted—though failed—to seat Bilbo.

Due to the prominent allegations garnering plentiful public attention, a Senate committee was sent to Mississippi to investigate the credible claims of Bilbo's white supremacist voter intimidation.[24] Although the Republican Party gained a Senate majority in the 1946 midterm elections, the Democrats still retained a majority in the lame-duck session until the new congressional session began. As a result, the investigating committee still retained a Democratic 3–2 majority; its Democratic members were Allen J. Ellender (the chairman), Elmer Thomas, and Burnet R. Maybank, while the Republican members were conservatives Styles Bridges and Bourke Hickenlooper.[25] When witnesses testified of fraud they observed and the assaults they endured, Ellender defended Bilbo and claimed that such violence was the result of "tradition and custom."

The committee split along party lines, with all three Democrats voting to acquit Bilbo while the Republicans dissented, Hickenlooper and Bridges stating that Bilbo's inflammatory rhetoric was unacceptable and abused the First Amendment.[26][27] Due to the GOP gaining control of the chamber, they refused to seat Bilbo. Louisiana's other Democratic senator, John H. Overton, who Bilbo was escorted by instead of his Mississippi senatorial colleague James Eastland (due to a state intraparty rivalry),[27] attempted to maneuver around this by introducing two motions which would seat Bilbo while resuming investigations.[26] The notability of the move was grounded in Senate rules, under which a simple majority could deny an elected senator from being seated while a two-thirds majority would be required to remove a senator already seated. Although the Overton motions were defeated on the Senate floor, Southern Democrats threatened filibusters, and Missisippi's pro-Bilbo governor Fielding L. Wright declared that in the circumstance Bilbo was denied his Senate seat, he would simply name the latter as the replacement.[26]

Bilbo privately conferred to Southern Democratic colleagues Clyde R. Hoey and Claude Pepper, who presented a compromise solution of delaying his seating while ensuring appropriated funds to pay for his throat cancer surgery.[26] Due to ultimately not returning to the Senate, the anti-Bilbo forces cheered. Prior to dying of oral cancer in his mansion[1] at the age of 69 following decades of spouting hatred, bigotry, and inciting violence, the last weeks of Bilbo's life were spent writing a racist screed, Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, where he promoted fearmongering of "race-mixing" and called for the repatriation of black Americans to West Africa. (a relocation bill he sponsored in the Senate in 1938 had failed) Never having repudiated his lifelong legacy of white supremacist hatred, Bilbo remained a figurehead for segregationists in the South long after his death.


In February 2022, a statue of Bilbo was removed from public display and stashed into a storage closet per a unilateral decision by Republican Andrew Ketchings, the clerk for the Mississippi House of Representatives.[28] Members of the Black Caucus had previously used the outstreched arm of the statue as a coat rack.[29]

Great Replacement propaganda

For a more detailed treatment, see Great Replacement.

Along with progressive activists Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard, Bilbo has been noted as a leading ideological proponent of the "Great Replacement" canard which claims that white populations are being "replaced" by racial minorities.[30] The white supremacist trope has fueled numerous instances of mass murders perpetrated by socialist, environmentalist[31] terrorists against blacks and other nonwhite ethnic minorities.[32]

Several "alt-right"/neo-Nazi websites glorify the leftist Bilbo as an early figurehead for their modern racist causes.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Sansing, David G. (July 10, 2017). Theodore Gilmore Bilbo. Mississippi Encyclopedia. Retrieved June 16, 2023.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Smith, Charles Pope (May 1983). Theodore G. Bilbo's Senatorial Career. The Final Years: 1941–47, pp. 5–6. University of Southern Mississippi. Retrieved June 19, 2023.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Fleegler, Robert L. Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism, 1938–1947, p. 6. Internet Archive. Retrieved December 18, 2022.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 "The Final Years: 1941–47," pp. 8–10a.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "The Final Years: 1941–47," pp. 10b–11.
  6. MS – District 07 Race – Nov 08, 1932. Our Campaigns. Retrieved June 16, 2023.
  7. Nelson, Lawrence J. (1999). King Cotton's Advocate: Oscar G. Johnston and the New Deal, p. 16. Google Books. Retrieved June 19, 2023.
  8. Caughey, Devin (2018). The Unsolid South: Mass Politics and National Representation in a One-Party Enclave, p. 123. Google Books. Retrieved June 19, 2023.
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism," pp. 7–8.
  10. Mickey, Robert (2015). Paths Out of Dixie: The Democratization of Authoritarian Enclaves in America's Deep South, 1944–1972, p. 153. Google Books. Retrieved June 16, 2023.
  11. Biles, Roger (February 24, 1994). The South and the New Deal, pp. 150–51. Google Books. Retrieved June 16, 2023.
  12. Kalman, Laura (2022). FDR's Gambit: The Court Packing Fight and the Rise of Legal Liberalism. Google Books. Retrieved June 16, 2023.
  13. 13.0 13.1 "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism," p. 9.
  14. Mace, Darryl (2014). In Remembrance of Emmett Till: Regional Stories and Media Responses to the Black Freedom Struggle. Google Books. Retrieved June 16, 2023.
  15. Wade, Eve. Theodore G. Bilbo and the Greater Liberia Act. The University of Southern Mississippi. Retrieved December 18, 2022.
  16. 16.0 16.1 "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism," p. 10.
  17. Morgan, Chester M. (1985). Redneck Liberal: Theodore G. Bilbo and the New Deal, p. 229. Google Books. Retrieved December 18, 2022.
  18. Coates, Ta-Nehisi (April 18, 2013). A History of Liberal White Racism, Cont. The Atlantic. Retrieved September 14th, 2020.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism," pp. 11–12.
  20. June 28, 1945. Mississippi Senator Attacks Jews in Three-hour Speech in Senate. Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Retrieved June 16, 2023.
  21. 21.0 21.1 "The Final Years: 1941–47," p. 114.
  22. March 1, 1945. NOMINATION OF HENRY WALLACE TO BE SECRETARY OF COMMERCE. Retrieved June 16, 2023.
  23. "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism," p. 20.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism," pp. 21–22.
  25. "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism," p. 23.
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism," pp. 24–26.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Annis, James Lee (2016). Big Jim Eastland: The Godfather of Mississippi. Google Books. Retrieved January 11, 2023.
  28. Pettus, Emily Wagster (February 10, 2022). Mystery Solved: Statue of Racist Mississippi Ex-Gov. Bilbo Stashed in Closet. Associated Press via NBC Bay Area. Retrieved June 16, 2023.
  29. Glass, Andrew (August 20, 2016). Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo dies at age 69, Aug. 21, 1947. Politico. Retrieved June 16, 2023.
  30. Cineas, Fabiola (May 17, 2022). Where “replacement theory” comes from — and why it refuses to go away. Vox. Retrieved June 16, 2023.
  31. Doescher, Tiana Lowe (May 16, 2022). The Buffalo shooter was an eco-socialist racist who hated Fox News and Ben Shapiro. Washington Examiner. Retrieved June 16, 2023.
  32. Hamilton, Martha M.; Wiener, Aaron (May 15, 2022). The roots of the ‘great replacement theory’ believed to fuel Buffalo suspect. The Washington Post. Retrieved June 16, 2023.

External links