Known as the Godfather of Mississippi Politics, James Oliver Eastland was one of the leaders of the massive resistance movement during the 1950s and 1960s. Eastland was born on 28 November 1904 in Doddsville, a small town in the Mississippi Delta. A year later the family moved to Forest, in the hilly eastern part of the state, where James’s father, Woods Eastland, ran a personal injury law practice. Woods also owned a large plantation in the Delta. In 1911 he was elected district attorney, and both his influence and his political network grew. One of his friends was Paul B. Johnson Sr., who served as governor of Mississippi from 1940 to 1943. This friendship proved instrumental in James Eastland’s rise to political prominence.
After attending public schools in Forest, James Eastland studied at the University of Mississippi (1922–24), Vanderbilt University (1925–26), and the University of Alabama (1926–27). He was admitted to the bar in 1927 and briefly practiced law before winning election to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1928. During his four years there, he supported the populist agenda of Gov. Theodore G. Bilbo. Retiring from state politics, Eastland married Elizabeth Coleman in 1932 and returned to Doddsville two years later to help his father manage the family farm. James Eastland also opened a law firm in nearby Ruleville.
When US senator Pat Harrison died in office on 22 June 1941, Johnson had to appoint a successor until a special election could be held to fill the seat for the last eighteen months of Harrison’s term. Johnson initially offered the post to Woods Eastland, but he declined and suggested his son. James Eastland served for three months, aggressively defending cotton planters’ interests. He did not participate in the special election but defeated Wall Doxey to win the seat during the regular 1942 Democratic primary, which in practice served as the general election in one-party Mississippi. Eastland’s victory resulted largely from his accomplishments in the Senate, his roots in the Delta and in the Mississippi hill country, and his father’s network of political friends.
James Eastland entered national politics at the dawn of the civil rights struggle. In the decades following World War II, the planter-politician from Mississippi became a vocal opponent of racial equality. In 1948 Eastland bolted from the Democratic Party after it adopted a strong civil rights plank at its national convention. Together with Mississippi’s other senator, John Stennis, Eastland was one of the few national politicians who openly supported the States’ Rights Party (the Dixiecrats). Eastland ran unopposed in 1948 but faced racial moderate Carroll Gartin in the 1954 Democratic primary. Eastland secured his victory by portraying himself as a champion of white supremacy, a popular position in Mississippi in the wake of the Supreme Court’s May 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Eastland took seventy of the state’s eighty-two counties.
Eastland’s reputation as the guardian of the Old South grew over the next two decades as he used his position as chair to make the Senate Judiciary Committee the “graveyard of civil rights legislation.” He blocked more than one hundred civil rights measures before the Senate finally maneuvered around “the Chairman” and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Outside the South, Eastland was often not highly regarded, with New York senator Herbert Lehman describing his colleague from Mississippi as “a symbol of racism in America” and the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of New York accusing him of “subversion just as real and, because it comes from a U.S. Senator, far more dangerous than any perpetrated by the Communist Party.” However, Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy commended Eastland for the “scrupulously fair and even-handed manner in which he presided over a committee of so many diverse viewpoints with so many issues before it.”
Eastland won reelection to the Senate five times but chose not to run again in 1978 when he realized that old age and a changed political culture would prevent him from winning a seventh term. Unlike Stennis, Eastland was not able to distance himself from his segregationist past, and civil rights activist Aaron Henry bluntly told the senator, “Your chances of getting support in the black community are poor at best. You have a master-servant philosophy with regard to blacks.” After retiring, Eastland moved back to Mississippi and spent his last years at the family plantation in Doddsville. When asked shortly before his death whether he would be a different politician if he had to do it over again, Eastland paused before responding, “I voted my convictions on everything.”
Eastland died on 19 February 1986. A US courthouse/post office building in Jackson was named in his honor, and the James O. Eastland Collection is available to researchers in the Department of Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi.
- J. Lee Annis, Big Jim Eastland: The Godfather of Mississippi (2016)
- Chris Myers Asch, The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer (2008)
- Joe Atkins, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (27 October 1985)
- Don Colburn, James O. Eastland: Democratic Senator from Mississippi (1972)
- J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986 (2004)
- Wolfgang Schlauch, Journal of Mississippi History (August 1972)
- Maarten Zwiers, Senator James Eastland: Mississippi’s Jim Crow Democrat (2015)