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James Eastland

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James Eastland

James Eastland
United States Senator
from Mississippi
In office
January 3, 1943 – December 27, 1978
Preceded by Wall Doxey
Succeeded by Thad Cochran
In office
June 30, 1941 – September 28, 1941
Appointed by Paul B. Johnson, Sr.
Preceded by Pat Harrison
Succeeded by Wall Doxey
President pro tempore of the United States Senate
In office
July 28, 1972 – December 27, 1978
Deputy Hubert Humphrey (1977–1978)
Preceded by Allen J. Ellender
Succeeded by Warren G. Magnuson
Chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary
In office
Preceded by Harley M. Kilgore
Succeeded by Ted Kennedy
Personal details
Born James Oliver Eastland
(1904-11-28)November 28, 1904
Sunflower County
Mississippi, USA
Died February 19, 1986(1986-02-19) (aged 81)
Doddsville, Mississippi
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Coleman Eastland
Children Four children
Alma mater University of Mississippi
Vanderbilt University
University of Alabama
Profession Cotton planter
Religion Methodist

James Oliver Eastland (November 28, 1904 – February 19, 1986) was an American politician from Mississippi who served in the United States Senate as a Democrat in 1941; and again from 1943 until his resignation December 27, 1978. From 1947 to 1978, he served alongside John Stennis, also a Democrat. At the time, Eastland and Stennis were the longest-serving Senate duo in American history, though their record was subsequently surpassed by Strom Thurmond and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, who served together for thirty-six years. Eastland was also the most senior member of the Senate at the time of his retirement in 1978. He compiled a conservative record in support of the Conservative coalition. A wealthy plantation owner, Eastland was best known nationally as a symbol of Southern support of racial segregation in most of his years in the Senate.[1]

Early life

Eastland was born in Doddsville, in the Mississippi Delta, the son of Woods Caperton Eastland, a lawyer and cotton planter, and Alma Teresa (Austin) Eastland. In 1905 he moved with his parents to Forest, where he attended the segregated public schools. Woods Eastland was active in politics and served as a district attorney.

Eastland attended the University of Mississippi (1922-1924), Vanderbilt University (1925-1926), and the University of Alabama (1926-1927) before studying law with his father and attaining admission to the bar. A lawyer in rural Mississippi, he served one term in the state House of Representatives from 1928 to 1932.


In the 1930s, Eastland took over his family's Sunflower County plantation, and eventually expanded it to nearly 6,000 acres (24 km2). Even after entering politics, he considered himself first and foremost a cotton planter. While agriculture was mechanizing, he still had many African-American laborers on the plantation, many working as sharecroppers.

Political career

Eastland was first appointed to the Senate in 1941 by Democratic Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr., following the death of Senator Pat Harrison. Johnson first offered the appointment to Eastland's father, who declined and suggested his son. Johnson appointed James Eastland on the condition that he not run in the special election for the seat later in the year. Eastland kept his word and the election was won by 2nd District Congressman Wall Doxey.

In 1942, Eastland was one of three candidates who challenged Doxey for a full term. Doxey had the support of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mississippi's senior U.S. Senator, Theodore G. Bilbo, but Eastland defeated him in the Democratic primary.

In those days, winning the Democratic nomination was tantamount to election in Mississippi. It was a one-party state dominated by white Democrats since disfranchisement of African Americans with passage of the 1890 state constitution, which used poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses to exclude them from the political system. Eastland returned to the Senate on January 3, 1943.

FDR and Eastland developed a working relationship that enabled Eastland to oppose New Deal programs unpopular in Mississippi while he supported FDR's agenda on many other issues. Eastland was effective in developing this type of arrangement with presidents of both parties during his long tenure in the Senate. As a result he gained major federal investment in the state, such as infrastructure construction including the Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway, and federal relief after disasters such as Hurricane Camille.

In 1956, Eastland was appointed as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Under the Senate's seniority rules, he was next in line for the chairmanship and there was no significant effort to deny him the post, which he held until his retirement.

He was re-elected five times, facing substantive GOP opposition only twice and not until the late 20th century, which party politics were shifting after passage of civil rights legislation that enforced constitutional rights for minorities. In 1966, freshman congressman Prentiss Walker, the first Republican to represent Mississippi at the federal level since Reconstruction and the late 19th-century disfranchisement of blacks, ran against him. This was one of the early campaigns by the Republican Party as it worked to attract white conservatives in the South to its ranks. Following leadership by national Democrats, who supported civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, most African Americans in the South began to vote with the Democratic Party on national candidates.

Former Republican Party state chairman Wirt Yerger had considered running against Eastland, but bowed out after Walker announced his candidacy. Walker ran well to Eastland's right, accusing him of not having done enough to keep integration-friendly judges from being confirmed by the Senate. As is often the case when a one-term representative runs against a popular incumbent senator or governor, Walker was soundly defeated. Years later, Yerger said that Walker's decision to relinquish his House seat after one term for the vagaries of a Senate race against Eastland was "very devastating" to the growth of the Mississippi GOP.[2]

In 1972, Eastland was reelected with 58 percent of the vote in his closest contest ever. His Republican opponent, Gil Carmichael, an automobile dealer from Meridian, was likely aided by President Richard Nixon's landslide reelection in 49 states, including 78 percent of Mississippi's popular vote. However, Nixon worked "under the table" to support Eastland, who was a long-time personal friend. Nixon and other Republicans provided little support for Carmichael to avoid alienating conservative Southern Democrats.

The GOP did work to elect two House candidates, Gerald R. Ford, Jr. Eastland's former press secretary, Larry Speakes, a Mississippi native, served as a press spokesman for Gerald Ford and U.S. Senator Robert J. Dole in the latter's vice-presidential campaign on the Ford ticket.

During his last Senate term, Eastland served as President pro tempore of the Senate, as he was the longest-serving Democrat in the Senate.

Views on civil rights and race

Eastland is best known for his strong opposition to the civil rights movement, which became increasingly active in mid century to enforce constitutional rights of all citizens. When the Supreme Court issued its decision in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas 347 US 483 (1954), ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, Eastland, like most Southern Democrats, denounced it. In a speech given in Senatobia, Mississippi on August 12, 1955, he said:

"On May 17, 1954, the Constitution of the United States was destroyed because of the Supreme Court's decision. You are not obliged to obey the decisions of any court which are plainly fraudulent sociological considerations."[3]

Eastland testified to the Senate ten days after the Brown decision came down:

The Southern institution of racial segregation or racial separation was the correct, self-evident truth which arose from the chaos and confusion of the Reconstruction period. Separation promotes racial harmony. It permits each race to follow its own pursuits, and its own civilization. Segregation is not discrimination... Mr. President, it is the law of nature, it is the law of God, that every race has both the right and the duty to perpetuate itself. All free men have the right to associate exclusively with members of their own race, free from governmental interference, if they so desire.

When three civil rights workers, namely Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, went missing in Mississippi on June 21, 1964, Eastland reportedly told President Lyndon Johnson that the incident was a hoax and there was no Ku Klux Klan in the state. He suggested that the three had gone to Chicago:[4]

Johnson: Jim, we've got three kids missing down there. What can I do about it?
Eastland: Well, I don't know. I don't believe there's ... I don't believe there's three missing.
Johnson: We've got their parents down here.
Eastland: I believe it's a publicity stunt...

Johnson once said, "Jim Eastland could be standing right in the middle of the worst Mississippi flood ever known, and he'd say the niggers caused it, helped out by the Communists."[5]

Eastland, along with senators Robert Byrd, John McClellan, Olin D. Johnston, Sam Ervin, and Strom Thurmond, made unsuccessful attempts to block confirmation of Thurgood Marshall, an African American, to the Federal Court of Appeals and the US Supreme Court.

Senator Eastland with President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968.

Eastland, like most of his southern colleagues, opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited segregation of public places and facilities. Its passage caused many Mississippi Democrats to support Barry Goldwater's presidential bid that year, but Eastland did not publicly oppose the election of Lyndon Johnson. Four years earlier he had quietly supported John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, though Mississippi voted that year for unpledged electors. Although Goldwater was strongly defeated by incumbent Lyndon Johnson, he carried Mississippi with 87 percent of the popular vote (his best showing in any state[6]) because of white opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Eastland was often at odds with Johnson's policy on civil rights, but their friendship remained close. Johnson often sought Eastland's support and guidance on other issues, such as the failed Chief Justice nomination of Abe Fortas in 1968.[7] In the 1950s, Johnson was one of three Senators from the South who did not sign the Southern Manifesto, but Eastland and most Southern Senators did, vowing resistance to school integration.

Contrary to popular opinion, Eastland did not use the appointment of Harold Cox to a federal judgeship as leverage against John F. Kennedy's appointment of Thurgood Marshall to a federal judgeship. Cox was nominated by Kennedy more than a year before Marshall came up for consideration, and his nomination resulted from a personal conversation between Cox and Kennedy. The president, not wanting to upset the powerful chairman of the Judiciary Committee, generally acceded to Eastland's requests on judicial confirmations in Mississippi, which resulted in white segregationists dominating control of the Federal courts in the state.

During his later years, in the face of increasing black political power in Mississippi, Eastland avoided associating with racist positions. He hired black Mississippians to serve on the staff of the Judiciary Committee. Eastland noted to aides that his earlier position on race was due primarily to the political realities of the times, i.e., as a major political figure in a southern state in the 1950s and 1960s.

When he considered running for reelection in 1978, he sought black support. He won the support of Aaron Henry, civil rights leader and president of the NAACP, but he ultimately decided not to seek re-election. Due in part to the independent candidacy of Charles Evers siphoning off votes from the Democratic candidate, Republican 4th District Representative Thad Cochran won the race to succeed Eastland. Eastland resigned two days after Christmas to give Cochran a leg up in seniority. After his retirement, he remained friends with Aaron Henry and sent contributions to the NAACP, but he publicly stated that he "didn't regret a thing" in his public career.

Anti-communist efforts

Eastland served on a subcommittee investigating the Communist Party. As chairman of the Internal Security Subcommittee, he subpoenaed some employees of The New York Times, which was at the time taking a strong position on its editorial page that Mississippi should adhere to the Brown decision. The Times countered in its January 5, 1956 editorial:

Our faith is strong that long after Senator Eastland and his present subcommittee are gone, long after segregation has lost its final battle in the South, long after all that was known as McCarthyism is a dim, unwelcome memory, long after the last Congressional committee has learned that it cannot tamper successfully with a free press, The New York Times will be speaking for [those] who make it, and only for [those] who make it, and speaking, without fear or favor, the truth as it sees it.
Eastland subsequently allowed the subcommittee to become dormant as issues such as the perceived threat of Communism receded.

Relationship with FBI

Official U.S. Senate portrait of Senator James Eastland

Eastland was a staunch supporter of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and shared intelligence with the FBI, including leaks from the State Department. An investigation initiated by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and executed by former FBI agent Walter Sheridan traced some of the unauthorized disclosures to Otto Otepka of the State Department Office of Security.[8]

Hoover received intelligence that Eastland was among members of congress who had received money and favors from Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic. Eastland had regularly defended him from the Senate floor. Hoover declined to pursue Eastland on corruption charges but accepting money from foreign officials is illegal.[9]

Later years

In his last years in the Senate, Eastland was recognized by most Senators as one who knew how to wield the legislative powers he had accumulated. Many Senators, including liberals who opposed many of his conservative positions, acknowledged the fairness with which he chaired the Judiciary Committee, sharing staff and authority that chairmen of other committees jealously held for themselves. He maintained personal ties with stalwart liberal Democrats such as Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and Phil Hart, even though they disagreed on many issues. Following Johnson's retirement from the White House, Eastland frequently visited Johnson at his Texas ranch.

Eastland died on February 19, 1986. The law library at Ole Miss is named after Eastland. This has caused some controversy in Mississippi given Eastland's earlier racist positions, but the University benefited financially from Eastland's many friends and supporters, as it has done from other political figures of Eastland's era.

Senate President pro tempore

James Eastland is the most recent President pro tempore to have served during a vacancy in the Vice Presidency. He did so twice during the tumultuous 1970s, first from October to December 1973, following Spiro Agnew's resignation until the swearing-in of Gerald Ford as Vice President, and then from August to December 1974, from the time that Ford became President until Nelson Rockefeller was sworn in as Vice President. During these periods Eastland was second in the presidential line of succession, behind only Speaker of the House Carl Albert.


  1. ^ Marjorie Hunter "James O. Eastland is Dead at 81, Leading Senate Foe of Integration" The New York Times, February 20, 1986
  2. ^ "Challenging the Status Quo: Rubel Lex Phillips and the Mississippi Republican Party (1963-1967)", The Journal of Mississippi History, XLVII, No. 4 (November 1985), p. 256
  3. ^ Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954–1965, by Juan Williams, Viking Penguin, January 1, 1987, ISBN 978-0-670-81412-1, p. 38.
  4. ^ :: The secret White House tapes and recordings of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower
  5. ^ Schlesinger, Arthur M. (2002). Robert Kennedy and His Times. Houghton Mifflin Books. p. 234.  
  6. ^ Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections - Data Graphs
  7. ^ Laura Kalman (1990). Abe Fortas.  
  8. ^ Weiner, Tim (2013). Enemies. Random House. pp. 228–229.  
  9. ^ Weiner, Tim (2013). Enemies. Random House. pp. 217–218.  

Further reading

External links

  • The James Oliver Eastland Collection owned by the University of Mississippi
  • James Eastland interviewed by Mike Wallace on The Mike Wallace Interview
  • Oral History Interview with James Eastland, from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library
United States Senate
Preceded by
Pat Harrison
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Mississippi
June 30, 1941 – September 28, 1941
Served alongside: Theodore G. Bilbo
Succeeded by
Wall Doxey
Preceded by
Wall Doxey
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Mississippi
January 3, 1943 – December 27, 1978
Served alongside: Theodore G. Bilbo, John C. Stennis
Succeeded by
Thad Cochran
Political offices
Preceded by
Allen J. Ellender
President pro tempore of the United States Senate
Succeeded by
Warren G. Magnuson
Preceded by
Harley M. Kilgore
Chairman of Senate Judiciary Committee
Succeeded by
Edward Kennedy
Honorary titles
Preceded by
George Aiken
Dean of the United States Senate
January 3, 1975 – November 28, 1977
with John L. McClellan
Succeeded by
Preceded by
Himself and
John L. McClellan
Dean of the United States Senate
November 28, 1977 – January 3, 1979
Succeeded by
Warren G. Magnuson
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