Senator James K. Vardaman (Harris & Ewing photographer, Library of Congress [LC-H261- 1506])


For a century after the Civil War, Mississippi was affected by all of the elements necessary for the production of demagogues: deep racial suspicions left over from the days of slavery, lingering resentment of Reconstruction, an impoverished agrarian society, sharp class distinctions between the few haves and the many have-nots, and a poorly educated electorate.

In their 1939 book, Dixie Demagogues, Allan A. Michie and Frank Ryhlick wrote, “A fantastic parade of charlatans has marched across the hustings of the South since the Civil War.” Nowhere was the tramping of the demagogic guard more resounding than in Mississippi, where politicians exploited the frustrations of poor people. Rabble-rousing rhetoric filled the chambers of the state legislature and echoed from the steps of county courthouses. The practitioners of demagoguery won many elective positions over the years; some rose to the highest offices in the state.

James K. Vardaman, editor of the Greenwood Commonwealth, emerged in the latter part of the nineteenth century as a leader of populist forces in the state, with a strong strain of racism permeating his speeches and writings. Known as the Great White Chief, Vardaman targeted Mississippi’s black population in his diatribes. He characterized the Negro as “a lazy, lustful animal which no conceivable amount of training can transform into a tolerable citizen.” He also singled out corporate interests as enemies of the people and waged class warfare against wealthy business owners and planters.

Vardaman was twice defeated as a candidate for governor before winning the office in 1903 and plunging the state into such quixotic initiatives as a futile attempt to repeal the Fifteenth Amendment, which extended voting rights to all races, and legislation to limit corporations to property worth no more than two million dollars. Vardaman later became involved in bitter contests for a US Senate seat against LeRoy Percy, a member of an aristocratic Delta family. Though Percy first defeated Vardaman in a special election decided by the legislature, Vardaman gained the seat and revenge in a tumultuous 1911 campaign in which the victor’s followers were encouraged to call themselves lowbrows and rednecks.

Though Vardaman lost his political credibility in Washington, his place was quickly taken by his protégé, Theodore G. Bilbo. As a state legislator, governor, and US senator, Bilbo dominated Mississippi’s political landscape for forty years. Spewing ethnic slurs and racial epithets, Bilbo became known as the nation’s most vociferous demagogue. He was involved in scandals throughout his career but was shameless about the controversies. After serving ten days in jail in Oxford for contempt of court, Bilbo compared himself to Martin Luther and St. Paul, who had also been imprisoned. Bilbo had his own newspaper, the Mississippi Free Lance, to counterattack his critics. In one famous tirade against Fred Sullens, editor of the Jackson News, Bilbo delivered a curse against his rival: “Cast him out upon the lonely seashore of despair, where the howling winds of divine retribution will bite and cut him to the ignoble death that he so justly deserves, and where like a dead mackerel in the moonlight he will, forever, of his own corruption, lie stinking and shining, shining and stinking.” Bilbo died in 1947 while suspended from the Senate and under investigation for kickbacks in connection with the construction of his “dream house” in Poplarville.

Though no other politician could measure up to Bilbo’s thunder, many tried. Ross Barnett, a country lawyer with roots in Leake County, rode the support of the Citizens’ Council to the governor’s office in 1959 and eventually led the state into its greatest crisis since the Civil War in an effort to block James Meredith from enrolling at the University of Mississippi in 1962. Barnett publicly portrayed himself as a champion of white southerners but privately engaged in a series of secret deals with the Kennedy administration during the integration struggle that triggered a riot on the University of Mississippi campus.

Barnett attempted a comeback in 1967 but was badly beaten in the last episode of raw demagoguery in Mississippi. Barnett lost to a congressman from Raymond, John Bell Williams, who ran an openly racist campaign. Another candidate, Jimmy Swan, ran a powerful insurgent campaign, declaring that Mississippi’s white children would never be sacrificed “on the filthy, atheistic altar of integration.”

Further Reading

  • John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America (1997)
  • A. Wigfall Green, The Man Bilbo (1963)
  • Erle Johnston, I Rolled with Ross (1980)
  • V. O. Key Jr., Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949)
  • Albert D. Kirwan, Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876–1925 (1965)
  • Allan A. Michie and Frank Ryhlick, Dixie Demagogues (1939)
  • Chester Morgan, Redneck Liberal: Theodore G. Bilbo and the New Deal (1985)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Demagogues
  • Author
  • Keywords demagogues
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date February 20, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 13, 2018