Before his election to the state's highest office in 1943, Thomas L. Bailey served twenty-four years in the Mississippi House of Representatives. For twelve years, he was Speaker of the House. Bailey was a member of a small but powerful group of lawmakers known as The Big Four, which included Walter Sillers, Joseph George, and Laurence Kennedy. The members of The Big Four held key committee chairmanships in the state House of Representatives and virtually controlled the flow of legislation during the two to three decades they were in power.
Bailey was born in Webster County, Mississippi, on January 6, 1888. He graduated in 1909 with a bachelor of arts degree from Millsaps College. After a short teaching career in the state’s public school system and after receiving a law degree from Millsaps, Bailey opened a law practice at Meridian in 1913. He represented Lauderdale County in the Mississippi Legislature from 1916 to 1940. Bailey was one of the authors of Mississippi’s homestead exemption law and was a strong supporter of pension benefits for senior citizens. He was also an early supporter of the Balance Agriculture With Industry program. After he was elected governor, Bailey championed industrial expansion in Mississippi.
Governor Bailey’s administration, which was cut short by his death on November 2, 1946, was marked by a series of accomplishments that left a positive and lasting impact on the state. Governor Bailey established the Agricultural and Industrial Board to promote industrial growth and the Mississippi Marketing Commission to assist Mississippi farmers in the sale and distribution of their goods. To facilitate the transportation of goods throughout rural Mississippi, Bailey promoted the development of a secondary highway system known as “farm to market roads.”
A constitutional board of trustees of state institutions of higher learning was established during his first year in office, and he appointed the trustees to the state's first non-political college board.
More than 237,000 Mississippians, or one out of every nine, served in the armed forces during World War II. When that war ended in 1945, Governor Bailey predicted that Mississippi and the South would be dramatically changed. In his last address to the legislature, he urged the lawmakers to think beyond the next biennium, to plan for the next twenty-five years and the enormous changes that were sure to come to Mississippi.
Governor Bailey’s wife, Nellah Massey Bailey, entered politics after the governor’s death and became the first woman elected to a statewide office in Mississippi. She was elected state tax collector in 1947, and re-elected in 1951 and 1955.
A segment of Interstate Highway 59 around Meridian is named Thomas Bailey Drive in honor of Mississippi’s forty-eighth governor.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1924-1928), 231.
Election upset in 1943, Jackson Daily News, August 25, 1943.
Obituary, Jackson Daily News, November 3, 1946; The Clarion-Ledger, November 3, 1946.
Thomas L. Bailey Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.