On 5 April 1994 Jamie Whitten announced that he would not seek reelection to the US House of Representatives. “The people of our state have been mighty good to me through the years and it has always been my desire to serve them as well as I possibly could,” he said in a statement from his Washington office. “However, the timing seems right and there are other interests I still want to pursue.” Whitten had entered Congress in 1941 and held on to his seat for fifty-three years, making him the longest-serving member of the House at the time of his retirement.
Jamie Lloyd Whitten was born on 18 April 1910 in Cascilla, Mississippi. He grew up in a farming family, attended local public schools, and studied literature and law at the University of Mississippi. Before his election to Congress, Whitten briefly served as a school principal, practiced law in Charleston, and was a member of the State House of Representatives in 1931 and 1932. He was elected district attorney of the 17th District in 1933 and occupied that position until 1941. When Mississippi representative Wall Doxey resigned from the US House that year to run for the Senate, Whitten won Doxey’s vacated seat and soon became known as an avid supporter of agricultural programs. In 1949 Whitten became the chair of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, a post he held until 1992.
Like most southern Democrats, Whitten fiercely opposed civil rights and desegregation during the 1950s and 1960s. He believed that the US Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision would set the United States “on the downhill road to integration and amalgamation and ruin,” and he was one of the signers of the 1956 Southern Manifesto, which called the Brown decision “a clear abuse of judicial power.” Whitten voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and an extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1975. However, when the black vote became more powerful after the 1960s, Whitten distanced himself from his segregationist past. “Conditions change,” he said in an interview; “You go with conditions as they are, not like what they used to be.” With a constituency that was 23 percent African American, he wisely decided that pragmatism would be a surer way to electoral success than race-baiting.
During his career in Congress, Whitten focused primarily on agriculture. His forty-three years on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee earned him the nicknames Farm Baron and Permanent Secretary of Agriculture. He used his political power to secure subsidies for cotton farmers and agricultural research, and he supported soil conservation and the use of pesticides. In 1966, in response to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which claimed that the use of insecticides such as DDT would cause ecological disaster, Whitten published That We May Live, and he contended that DDT had “produced no known harmful effect to human health when properly used.”
In 1979 Whitten was elected chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Although more reform-minded politicians initially opposed his election, Whitten obtained the backing of House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill, a Massachusetts Democrat. In exchange, Whitten gave his support to a number of liberal programs including food stamps, marking his transition from a staunch conservative to a more mainstream Democrat. In 1976 Whitten voted with his party only 32 percent of the time; eight years later that number was 76 percent. Over the years, he also changed his stance on race issues. According to Aaron Henry, former president of the Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “Certainly, in his last 12 to 15 years, he got to be pretty strong in his advocacy for equity and justice for all Mississippians.”
As a campaigner, Whitten represented the old southern cult of personalism based less on political issues and more on direct contact with the voters. He wielded his political clout to deliver federally funded projects to his home district, such as the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, the Jamie L. Whitten National Center for Physical Acoustics at the University of Mississippi, and subsidies for a NASA plant near Iuka. “My district is part of the nation,” went one his catchphrases, “and if you handle a national program and leave out your district, you would not want to go home.” However, at the end his career, his power started to wane. A 1992 stroke cost Whitten his positions as committee chairs. Largely ignored during his last two years in Congress, “the Chairman” retired after more than half a century on Capitol Hill.
On 9 September 1995, Whitten died of heart and kidney failure and acute respiratory distress at Baptist Memorial Hospital–North Mississippi in Oxford.
- David Binder, New York Times (9 September 9 1995)
- Mac Gordon, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (6 April 1994)
- Anne Millet, Jamie L. Whitten: Democratic Representative from Mississippi (1972)
- Jere Nash and Andy Taggart, Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976–2008 (2nd ed., 2009)
- Marty Russell, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (10 September 1995)
- Ward Sinclair, Washington Post (26 December 1978)
- J. Y. Smith, Washington Post (10 September 1995)
- Emily Wagster and Butch John, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (10 September 1995)