Theodore Bilbo

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Theodore Gilmore 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 Selita Herrington (died 1899)
Lida Ruth Gaddy

Theodore Gilmore Bilbo (October 13, 1877 – August 21, 1947) was a Democratic Klansman from Mississippi who served as a governor of the state from 1916 to 1920 and 1928 to 1932, and as a U.S. senator from 1935 to 1947. A towering de facto leader among white supremacist circles, he was infamous for praising Nazi racial philosophy and known for extreme inflammatory rhetoric.

U.S. Senate

In 1934, Bilbo ran for United States Senate and denied the renomination of incumbent Democratic senator, Hubert D. Stephens, who was regarded as relatively more conservative.[1] 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, diatribes against anti-lynching legislation

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.[1] 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."

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.[2] Although most Southern Democratic senators opposed anti-lynching legislation on veiled arguments without overt race-baiting, Bilbo notably employed demagogic propaganda.

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,[2][3] 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.[4] 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."[4] However, the Newsweek article failed to mention Bilbo's praise of Nazi racial ideology.

1940s: re-election, furthered bigotry

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

Bilbo ran for re-election 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."[5] In return, Bilbo boasted of being "100 percent for Roosevelt...and the New Deal."[6] 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.[7]

According to Fleegler:[7]

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."[7] 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 re-elected: "Can’t thank you enough for what you did in Missouri."

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."[8] 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 re-elected 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.[9] 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:[9]

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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11][12] 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),[12] attempted to maneuver around this by introducing two motions which would seat Bilbo while resuming investigations.[11] 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.[11]

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.[11] Due to ultimately not returning to the Senate, the anti-Bilbo forces cheered. Prior to dying of oral cancer 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.

See also

  • John E. Rankin, like-minded antiblack and antisemitic demagogue from Mississippi


  1. 1.0 1.1 Fleegler, Robert L. Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism, 1938–1947, pp. 7–8. Internet Archive. Retrieved December 18, 2022.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism," p. 9.
  3. Wade, Eve. Theodore G. Bilbo and the Greater Liberia Act. The University of Southern Mississippi. Retrieved December 18, 2022.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism," p. 10.
  5. Morgan, Chester M. (1985). Redneck Liberal: Theodore G. Bilbo and the New Deal, p. 229. Google Books. Retrieved December 18, 2022.
  6. A History of Liberal White Racism, Cont. The Atlantic. Retrieved September 14th, 2020.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism," pp. 11–12.
  8. "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism," p. 20.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism, pp. 21–22.
  10. "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism," p. 23.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 "Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism," pp. 24–26.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Annis, James Lee (2016). Big Jim Eastland: The Godfather of Mississippi. Google Books. Retrieved January 11, 2023.

External links