Although he was only five-feet, two-inches tall, Theodore G. Bilbo, in life as in legend, is a towering figure who stalked across the pages of Mississippi history. For forty years, from 1907 to 1947, “The Man,” as he was called by friends and foes alike, occupied a prominent place in Mississippi politics. He is notorious in history for his views on race.
Born at Juniper Grove in Pearl River County, Mississippi, on October 13, 1877, Bilbo entered public school at age fifteen and graduated from high school four years later. Following a short teaching career, he attended Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt Law School, but did not graduate from either institution.
After losing his first political race in 1903 to a “one-armed Confederate veteran,” Bilbo launched an illustrious and successful political career that included the offices of state senator, 1908-1912; lieutenant governor, 1912-1916; governor, 1916-1920 and 1928-1932; and United States senator, 1935-1947. His long career was punctuated by defeats as well as victories, and included losing campaigns for circuit clerk in 1903, U. S. Congress in 1918, governor in 1923, and U. S. Congress in 1932. Governor Bilbo’s wife, Linda Gaddy Bedgood, made several campaign speeches for him in 1915 and may have been the first woman to actively participate in a statewide political race in Mississippi.
In Governor Bilbo’s second inaugural address, January 17, 1928, he recommended moving the University of Mississippi from Oxford to Jackson and the construction of a new $15 million university. He also recommended a thorough reorganization of Mississippi’s other public institutions of higher learning, including the establishment of a commissioner of higher education.
After those recommendations were defeated, Governor Bilbo persuaded the college board to dismiss two college presidents and about fifty-three faculty members. The number of presidents and faculty dismissed by Governor Bilbo has been greatly exaggerated by his critics. Actually, Governor Bilbo's motivation was not to punish his enemies and reward his friends, but to improve and upgrade the state's colleges. Nevertheless, several accrediting agencies withdrew accreditation from Mississippi’s institutions of higher learning for two years.
In addition to education reform, Governor Bilbo advocated a wide range of other political and economic reforms that were designed to improve the quality of life for Mississippi’s poor White farmers and workers who were his basic supporters. Bilbo’s flamboyant and often racially inflammatory campaign rhetoric, and his personal involvement in higher education, earned him the reputation of a demagogue.
After his second term ended in 1932, Governor Bilbo ran unsuccessfully for the United States Congress. Two years later he was elected to the U. S. Senate. He was re-elected in 1940 and 1946. During his early years in the Senate, Bilbo was a strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.
However, he gained notoriety for his aggressive opposition to all civil rights legislation. In the 1930s he supported movements to encourage African Americans to move to Africa, and he introduced a bill to prohibit racial intermarriage in Washington, D.C. He opposed antilynching legislation and conducted long filibusters against the Fair Employment Practices Committee and efforts to repeal the poll tax. In 1947 Bilbo published his only book, Take Your Choice, Separation or Mongrelization, a rambling defense of racial segregation.
After Senator Bilbo’s re-election in 1946, a group of Black World War II veterans challenged the validity of his election on the grounds that African Americans were not allowed to vote. Before the Senate could rule on that challenge, Bilbo died at his Dream House mansion near Poplarville on August 21, 1947.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1950), 849.
Green, A. Wigfall. The Man Bilbo (Baton Rouge, 1963).
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1917), 494.
Morgan, Chester. Redneck Liberal: Theodore G. Bilbo and the New Deal (Baton Rouge, 1985).
Sansing, David G. Making Haste Slowly, The Troubled History of Higher Education in Mississippi (Jackson, 1990), 91-110.