Theodore G. Bilbo. It sounds like the name of a character in a fantasy story, doesn’t it? Perhaps the name of an amiable, good-natured, little fellow who goes on exciting adventures with elves, dwarves, and wizards. Well, Theodore G. Bilbo was an actual person, and although at five feet two inches was small enough to be a hobbit, he did not go on any adventures, as far as I know, and he was far from being good-natured and amiable. Theodore G. Bilbo was, in fact, one of the most racist people ever to serve in the United States Senate.
Theodore Gilmore Bilbo was born in Juniper Grove, Mississippi, on October 13, 1877. Bilbo obtained a scholarship to attend Vanderbilt University Law School, but he failed to graduate perhaps from financial difficulties, although there were accusations of academic misconduct. Nevertheless, Bilbo was admitted to the bar in 1906 and began practicing law in Mississippi.
Bilbo was ambitious, however, and soon entered politics, serving in the Mississippi State Senate from 1908 to 1912. In 1910, Bilbo was accused of accepting a bribe to back a candidate for the United States Senate. Bilbo admitted to accepting the bribe but asserted that he was investigating political corruption. His fellow state senators did not buy the story, and he escaped being expelled from the Senate by one vote short of the three-fourths majority required for expulsion. This scandal did not seem to harm Bilbo’s political career. He was elected Lieutenant Governor, serving from 1912 to 1916. He then served two nonconsecutive terms as Governor of Mississippi, from 1916 to 1920 and again from 1928 to 1932, as Mississippi’s constitution did not permit governors to secede themselves.
Theodore G. Bilbo was a good governor. He became well known as a progressive populist who enacted policies to help the poorest residents of Mississippi, as long as they were White. He improved the state finances of Mississippi, implemented a state highway system, introduced compulsory school attendance, built charity hospitals for the poor, and ended public hanging. In his second term, Bilbo introduced the first state sales tax in the United States. Governor Bilbo had less sympathy for the Black residents of Mississippi, however. Among other things, he refused to prevent the lynching of Black Mississippians. Bilbo’s terms as governor were not without controversy, however, and a feud between the governor and the state legislature prevented the passage of a budget in the final year of his second term.
After his second term as Governor ended, Theodore G. Bilbo moved on to the Senate, serving from 1935 until the end of his life in 1947. In the Senate, Bilbo once again established a reputation as a progressive, fervently supporting Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Bilbo feuded with his fellow Mississippi Senator, Pat Harrison, who was seen as representing the wealthier classes of Mississippi. Bilbo made use of the Senate floor to promote his populist opinions, haranguing against:
“farmer murderers,” “poor-folks haters,” “shooters of widows and orphans,” “international well-poisoners,” “charity hospital destroyers,” “spitters on our heroic veterans,” “rich enemies of our public schools,” “private bankers ‘who ought to come out in the open and let folks see what they’re doing’,” “European debt-cancelers,” “unemployment makers,” pacifists, Communists, munitions manufacturers, and “skunks who steal Gideon Bibles from hotel rooms.”
Many of Senator Bilbo’s speeches were extremely racist, even by the standards of his time. As a result, the Democrat-controlled Senate would only assign him to relatively unimportant committees. When the Republicans gained control of the Senate after the 1946 elections, they along with the Northern Democrats, refused to permit Bilbo to take his seat because they believed his racist speeches had incited violence against Blacks in the South. Bilbo’s supporters among the Southern Democrats threatened a filibuster unless he was seated. The matter was resolved when Bilbo proved unable to serve his last term because he had developed oral cancer. Bilbo returned to Mississippi for treatment, and he died in New Orleans on August 21, 1947.
By describing Bilbo as racist, I do not mean that he only shared in the prejudices of his time and place. If that were the case, his racist views would be hardly worth writing about. He lived, after all, in the heyday of progressive, scientific racism in which all of the smart people believed that human beings could be graded like eggs from superior to inferior. No, Theodore G. Bilbo’s racism went further than the usual bigotry.
At some point, Bilbo joined the Ku Klux Klan, and he remained a proud member of the Klan his entire life, even after the Klan had dissolved as a formal organization. As a governor and senator, Bilbo upheld and advanced the Klan’s cause of White supremacy.
At the end of his life, Bilbo wrote a book titled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, which served as a summation of his views on race. Although in the prologue he professed to have no feelings of hostility against persons of any race but only opposed the mixing of races, a cause he believed the Black man should support as much as the White man, the book’s contents tell a different story. Throughout his book, Bilbo made it clear that he believed that Blacks were intellectually and morally inferior to Whites, describing Blacks in the most uncomplimentary terms possible.
In his view, Whites founded every great civilization; Rome, Greece, Egypt, or Babylon. When the Whites began to mix with other races, these civilizations declined and vanished. Whites founded our American civilization, and only the heroic efforts of Southern Whites have prevented the race mixing that destroyed so many past empires. Unfortunately, the efforts of Northern Liberals to achieve political and social equality for the Blacks threatened to undo everything. Bilbo’s solution was to encourage the voluntary emigration of American Blacks back to Africa, the ultimate separate but equal endeavor.
I am writing about Theodore G. Bilbo partly because I enjoy writing about historical trivia, but mostly because I want to make an important point. It has become conventional wisdom in this country that America is a country based on white supremacy, shot through with systemic racism. As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. America has been racist in the past; there is no denying that fact. Given that White people founded the United States of America, it is inevitable that our society would be based on White supremacy. just as a country founded by Blacks would be based on Black supremacy or a country founded by Asians would be based on Asian Supremacy. Every society in the world has been founded on the idea that its people are superior to the people living in other societies. It is only very recently, that in a few places, like the United States, the idea has taken hold that everyone should be treated equally.
I have said that Theodore G. Bilbo’s racist ideas were extreme even for his times, but his views were not too extreme for the people of Mississippi to elect him as governor and then senator. A large number of people throughout the South shared his racist ideas. That is not the case today. A candidate who expressed the sort of racist ideas that Theodore G. Bilbo expressed would be lucky to get just two percent of the vote. We are no longer the country that would elect a Theodore G. Bilbo to high office.
America has changed, vastly for the better, by embracing its founding ideals. Anyone who asserts that America is a systemically racist country in the twenty-first century is either a fool, ignorant of our history or a malicious liar.