John Cornelius Stennis served for more than forty-one years as a US senator from Mississippi. The son of Hampton Howell Stennis and Margaret Cornelia Adams Stennis, he was born on 3 August 1901 on a farm near De Kalb in Kemper County. Stennis earned degrees at Mississippi State University (1923) and the University of Virginia School of Law (1928), where he was elected Phi Beta Kappa. Stennis won election to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1928 and served until 1932. He then became a prosecuting attorney from 1932 to 1937 before spending the next decade as a circuit judge.
A Democrat, Stennis won a US Senate seat in a 1947 special election following the death of Theodore G. Bilbo. Pledging to voters that he would “plow a straight furrow right down to the end of the row,” Stennis defeated a field of candidates that included sitting US representatives William Colmer and John Rankin. Stennis won reelection in 1952, as he did easily thereafter until 1988, when he chose not to run again. Undefeated in his elections for public office over six decades, Stennis earned a reputation as a man of great personal integrity. In 1954 Stennis was appointed to a bipartisan committee to investigate the conduct of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. When McCarthy attacked the committee, Stennis delivered a forceful speech calling for McCarthy’s censure. Stennis respected the authority and institutional prerogatives of the Senate, remarking that he had served “with” rather than “under” eight presidents from Truman to Reagan.
Like most southern Democrats from the 1940s through the 1960s, Stennis opposed antilynching and anti-poll-tax legislation, equal employment legislation, and other civil rights measures, participating in filibusters to keep such measures from receiving votes. In his Senate campaigns, however, Stennis never resorted to strident race-baiting or overt appeals to white supremacy. He signed the 1956 Southern Manifesto condemning the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, supported Barry Goldwater in 1964, opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and deplored Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s attention to civil rights—all positions that reflected the wishes of the majority of the state’s voters. Stennis did understand, however, that state and national politics had changed by the 1970s and 1980s. In 1982 he voted for the extension of the Voting Rights Act, and in 1986 he supported Mike Espy’s successful attempt to become the state’s first black member of Congress since John R. Lynch in the late nineteenth century.
Stennis and James O. Eastland represented Mississippi in the Senate for thirty-one years, making them one of the longest-serving pairs in US history. Contrasting in temperament and appearance—Stennis was courtly and polite, while Eastland, longtime chair of the Judiciary Committee, was gruff and raw, especially on the subject of race—the two men held powerful posts as committee chairs and voted together much more often than they disagreed. As head of the Armed Services Committee from 1969 to 1980, Stennis was generally hawkish on defense and supported the modernization of the US Navy’s aircraft and nuclear fleet. To honor his long-standing commitment to the nation’s military, the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis was commissioned in 1995. Just as important to his constituents, Stennis’s service on the Appropriations Committee gave him the power to direct federal dollars to Mississippi, with the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, Pascagoula’s Ingalls Shipbuilding, and Hancock County’s Stennis Space Center benefiting from his Washington clout.
By the 1960s Stennis felt less comfortable with the national Democratic Party than he did with the rising Republican Right. Many Republicans felt comfortable with Stennis as well. In 1973, as the Watergate scandal unfolded, Pres. Richard Nixon proposed that Stennis listen to his White House recordings, compare them with transcripts, and assure special prosecutor Archibald Cox that the transcripts were accurate. The plan failed to attract support. In 1982 Stennis’s age became an issue in his reelection campaign against thirty-four-year-old Republican Haley Barbour, but Stennis and Pres. Ronald Reagan reached an understanding that Reagan would not campaign in Mississippi, and Stennis carried all but two counties. The 100th Congress (1987–89) elected him its president pro tempore. The longest-serving US senator in Mississippi’s history, Stennis was succeeded by Republican Trent Lott, elected in 1988.
In 1929 Stennis married Coy Hines of New Albany, a home demonstration agent in Kemper County; “Miss Coy” died in 1983. The couple had two children, John Hampton, born in 1935, and Margaret Jane, born in 1937. Stennis was badly wounded in a robbery attempt outside his Washington home in 1973 but showed remarkable tenacity in his recovery. In the 1980s his health began to decline, and he lost a leg to cancer in 1984. After his retirement, Stennis remained involved in public affairs, returning to Mississippi State University to lecture to political science classes while his health allowed. A Presbyterian, Stennis died in Jackson on 23 April 1995 and is buried in his native Kemper County.
- Michael S. Downs, Journal of Mississippi History (Summer 1993)
- Joseph A. Fry, Debating Vietnam: Fulbright, Stennis, and Their Senate Hearings (2006)
- Jere Nash and Andy Taggart, Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976–2006 (2006)