Together with politicians such as James Vardaman and Theodore Bilbo, John Rankin belongs to that group of Mississippi demagogues who represented the raw edge of racism in US politics. While other southern congressmen often tried to couch their segregationist ideas in rhetoric about states’ rights, Rankin openly expressed his hatred of Jews, blacks, and communists. At the same time, he presented himself as a populist who spoke for the rights of the common man in his fight against the power of Wall Street and big business and in his support for rural electrification.
John Elliott Rankin was born on 29 March 1882 near Bolanda in Itawamba County, Mississippi. After graduation from high school, Rankin enrolled at the University of Mississippi. He graduated from the university’s law school in 1910 and was admitted to the bar the same year. Rankin practiced law in West Point and later in Tupelo. From 1911 to 1915 he served as prosecuting attorney of Lee County. Just before World War I ended, Rankin spent twenty-one days at a US Army officers’ training camp, subsequently using this brief service to portray himself as an ex-soldier and a defender of war veterans.
Rankin ran unsuccessfully for the US House of Representatives in 1916 and 1918. Shortly after his second campaign, Rankin started a newspaper, the New Era. The publication promoted the interests of veterans, advocated strict limits on immigration, and defended segregation and lynching. In one editorial Rankin declared himself a supporter of woman suffrage. Rankin again ran for the US House in 1920, portraying himself as the candidate of change against incumbent Zeke Candler in the Democratic primary. Rankin also pledged to work on behalf of national Jim Crow legislation. The New Era was an important instrument in spreading Rankin’s populist message. With the support of organized labor, Rankin defeated Candler in the runoff primary.
In Congress, Rankin lived up to his image of an unyielding defender of segregation. He declared that the constitutional rights of blacks were best protected under segregation and that every state in the Union should oppose integration as a way of maintaining racial harmony. In April 1921 Rankin joined other southern congressmen in opposing antilynching legislation introduced by Republican representative Leonidas C. Dyer, calling it “a bill to encourage rape.” The Mississippi congressman also held a firm belief in the righteousness of poll tax legislation, considering efforts by the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and northern politicians to repeal the tax a communist-inspired plot to stir up racial trouble in the South.
Although Rankin opposed federal intervention in southern race relations and election laws, he backed the economic recovery programs of Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Great Depression had hit Mississippi hard, and Rankin was on the front line in the fight for relief programs. With Republican senator George Norris of Nebraska, he coauthored the 1933 bill that created the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1936 Rankin backed the passage of the Rural Electrification Act, and a year later he threw his support behind the president’s controversial court-packing plan. The Mississippi legislator served as chair of the House Committee on World War Veterans’ Legislation, and in 1942 he played an important role in passing a bill that doubled the base pay of soldiers. “No man has done more for soldiers than I have,” Rankin claimed.
During the more reformist Second New Deal, Rankin started to turn away from the national Democrats and Presidnt Roosevelt. Although organized labor had endorsed Rankin in 1920, his concern about unions’ growing influence on his party increased after FDR’s 1936 victory. During World War II Rankin denounced strikes as sabotage and described the egalitarian policies of the Fair Employment Practices Committee as “illegal and unconstitutional.” He particularly targeted the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a labor movement that took a liberal stance on race relations.
As his career progressed, Rankin became more xenophobic and racist. In addition to his bigoted attitude toward blacks, he began to label Jews as dangerous conspirators who tried to subvert Americanism and Christian civilization through communism and international banking. After calling radio commentator Walter Winchell a “slime-mongering kike” during a congressional debate, Rankin was banned from the House floor for a day because of unparliamentary language. As an archenemy of communism, Rankin was one of the leading members of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He considered Hollywood an important base for a Jewish-communist conspiracy to overthrow the US government. His fear of outsiders also made him a strong advocate of strict immigration rules.
During the 1948 presidential election Rankin supported the States’ Rights Democratic ticket of Strom Thurmond and Mississippi governor Fielding Wright, a stance that cost Rankin his seat on the Un-American Activities Committee. In 1949 he became chair of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, a post he occupied until his retirement. In Congress, Rankin remained a strident foe of the Zionist movement, immigrants, organized labor, and the United Nations.
Rankin’s reactionary and racist political philosophy did not stand the test of time. In 1952 he lost his congressional seat to the younger and more moderate House member Thomas Abernethy, whose 4th District had been merged with Rankin’s 1st after the 1950 census. Rankin returned to Tupelo, where he practiced law and worked in the real estate business until his death on 26 November 1960.
- New York Times (27 November 1960)
- Time (8 October 1951)
- Kenneth Wayne Vickers, “John Rankin: Democrat and Demagogue” (master’s thesis, Mississippi State University, 1993)