- Historic Sites
1947 Fifty Years Ago
Death of a Demagogue
July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
Bilbo had brought such vituperation on himself with a long series of racist statements that were shocking in their crudity, even for a Southern politician of the time. He once declared that “the nigger is only 150 years from the jungles of Africa, where it was his great delight to cut him up some fried nigger steak for breakfast.” He called Rep. Clare Booth Luce a “nigger lover” and in 1938 praised Adolf Hitler on the floor of the United States Senate. Miscegenation was a particular concern since, he explained, “one drop of Negro blood placed in the veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and strikes palsied his creative faculty.” If the races were allowed to mingle, Bilbo said, the result would be a “motley melee of miscegenated mongrels,” filled with “mestizos, mulattoes, zambos, terceroones, quadroons, cholos, musties, fustics, and dusties.”
At the time of his death, Bilbo was in a peculiar sort of limbo. He had been re-elected to the Senate in 1946, but before taking his seat he faced two separate investigations. One was for intimidating black voters in the primary campaign. At hearings in Mississippi, witnesses had quoted him saying that the “way to keep a nigger from voting is to see him the night before, and if any nigger tries to organize to vote, use the tar and feathers and don’t forget the matches.” The special committee’s Southern majority said Bilbo was simply telling whites to give black would-be voters some “friendly advice” to counter the efforts of “outside agitators” (or as Bilbo characteristically put it, “a bunch of niggers in New York”). It ruled that he had done “nothing further than earnestly and sincerely seek to uphold Mississippi law, custom, and tradition”—which, unfortunately, was largely true. But a second committee found Bilbo guilty of accepting bribes from military contractors during World War II, and when the Senate convened in January 1947, the new Republican majority refused to seat him. Southern senators began a filibuster in response. In the end a compromise let the ailing Bilbo draw his salary without being sworn in.
If anyone tried to organize the black vote, Bilbo said, “use the tar and feathers and don’t forget the matches.”
On his deathbed Bilbo gave one final interview. His choice of interviewer was a surprise: Leon L. Lewis, managing editor of a newspaper called The Negro South . The dying senator professed to “hold nothing against Negroes as a race” and even endorsed letting them vote, “when their main purpose is not to put me out of office and when they won’t try to besmirch the reputation of my state.” A week after speaking these words, Bilbo went to meet the ultimate judge, who alone would decide the sincerity of his conversion. Those he left behind, however, could be forgiven for feeling that his change of heart had come considerably too late.