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Silver Lining: Bilbo Tells All

Theodore Bilbo.(Library of Congress)

May 1, 2014

Theodore G. Bilbo was one of the more despicable men ever to serve in the United States Senate. Widely considered the most virulent racist in the Senate in the 20th Century, Bilbo was proud of his racism, introducing bills to ship all American blacks to Africa and championing lynching. A Democrat, he represented Mississippi in the Senate from 1935 to 1947 after having served two terms as governor. In January, 1943, he sat for an interview with Harry S. McAlpin of the Chicago Defender, giving the smug Bilbo a chance to boast of his racism to an African American reporter writing for a black audience. The resulting story is a remarkable piece of journalism, showcasing the ways Mississippi kept blacks from voting and presenting the always-calm McAlpin at his professional best. Inside, he was seething at what he was hearing. But he kept his focus on the story. It ran as his "Silver Lining" column in the Chicago Defender on Jan. 23, 1943:

Senator Bilbo of Mississippi "entertained" me for thirty minutes in his office last week. Some of the things he said were funny – to him. But I was tremendously interested. I had interviewed Mrs. Roosevelt in the White House a few weeks ago, and I had been trying to get this "other point of view." Bilbo gave it to me, thick and heavy.

We started out talking about his repatriation bill – that proposal of his to send Negroes back to Africa. He intends to reintroduce it, though he isn't really going to push it until the war is over. Things are pretty hot over in Liberia and environs just now, and some of the signatories on his petitions may renege. Besides, the Army is taking some Negroes over there now anyway, but they intend to return if they are able – and Bilbo wants them to go and stay. So he's waiting 'til the war is over.


And here's the inside dope he let me have – he now has 4,000,000 signatures of Northern Negroes on his petitions urging passage of his bill and indicating intention to "go back to Africa." He hasn't campaigned in the South because he is confident of getting the southern "negra" on the dotted line.

There aren't many more than 4,000,000 Negroes in the North who can read and write, considering that some of the Negroes are little children and others have come up from the South where educational opportunities still wear lily white robes, he says. So acceptance of this idea, according to Bilbo's figures, is just about unanimous. (Don't tell me you don't remember signing your name!)

The Senator took great joy in pointing out how this widespread acceptance would operate to move ALL the Negroes back to Africa, despite the purely voluntary nature of the proposal.


He says there may be a few of the upper crust, who will balk at going at first. But when the dentists discover that all the teeth they have been pulling are in Liberia, they'll go there, too. The lawyer will find that all the "hell-raising" Negroes are in Liberia, and he'll have to go in order to live. The newspaper men, that includes me, will find that their circulation is in Liberia, so-o-o-o...

The great benefit, says Bilbo, will be in preserving the race. If we stay here in America, there will one day be no Negroes. We and the rest of America will become a mongrel race. White blood and black blood will be all mixed up and you won't be able to tell who's who. But we nor our children will see that, he says.

And, says he, the thinking Negro knows that as long as he stays here and stays black he will always be discriminated against, he will always be denied equal opportunity. He didn't say he was going to see to that, but I could sense that he meant it.

Then we talked about the poll tax. Bilbo is not against elimination of the poll tax. He has actually campaigned for its elimination in Mississippi. He said so.

What he objects to is its elimination by action of the federal government. And here is why, as he told it to me.

Elimination of the poll tax will not get the vote for a single solitary Negro in Mississippi. There is nothing in the law to prevent any and all Negroes from paying their poll tax. That is not the method they use in Mississippi (and most of the other Southern states) to keep the Negro from voting.

"We have a constitution in Mississippi which provides that all voters must register," said the Senator. "In order to register, our constitution provides that one must have lived in Mississippi for two years and in the precinct for one year. And – he must be able to read and interpret the Mississippi constitution. "That," declared Bilbo, "is where we keep the Negro from voting.

"We ask him what is an ex post facto law, what is the rule in Shelly's case, what is a capias. There ain't no way for him to get by."

Bilbo, stating that he and Perry Howard, Republican national committeeman from Mississippi – and a Negro – understand each other, told me one of Perry's jokes, which he said explained the situation thoroughly. It seems there has been only one Negro who ever really understood the constitution of Mississippi. He was asked the usual questions and then asked if he understood them. He replied, "Yessir, that means this Negro ain't going to vote in Mississippi."

Bilbo laughed.

"Now," he said, "If the federal government can set the qualifications for voters by eliminating the poll tax, they may want to remove our 'educational' requirements for registration. Then the Negro would vote – and the last census showed only 30,000 more whites than Negroes in Mississippi."


I asked him then about his position on anti-lynching legislation. He waxed eloquent then in telling me that he was doing the Negroes a favor by opposing it. He is sure that if such a law were passed, providing punishment of communities whenever lynchings occur, the people of the South, who like him, are opposed to lynching would withdraw their moral support that keeps down a lot of lynching. They would say that if Uncle Sam is going to do it, let him do it. And lynchings would increase 20 times.

He told another "funny" story. He informed Senator [Robert F.] Wagner during one of the lynching debates that if the bill passed he would get 15 airplanes and every time a Negro was lynched in Mississippi, he (Bilbo) would have the body flown over New York and dropped there so New York would have to pay part of the penalty. The bills have provided for joint responsibility when two or more countries were involved. Senator Wagner is from New York.

Bilbo laughed.

I asked him if he thought the five men indicted for the Laurel lynching would be convicted. [A black man was lynched by a white mob in Laurel, Miss., Oct. 16, 1942.] Unhesitatingly he told me "No." He is confident that no jury in Mississippi would find them guilty. He says the mistake was made when the jury, which convicted the Negro who was lynched, did not hang him. He said the man was a brutal killer. (No, not the lynchers. He was talking about the lynched Negro.)

We then brought up the FEPC [Fair Employment Practices Commission]. "It's awful," said Bilbo. "It is stirring up a lot of tension, filling Negroes in the South with ideas they don't know what to do with. You tell them what they ought to have and they think they already have it. Then they go out and try to act that way, and they get their heads bumped."

He didn't laugh this time.

He was "tickled pink" that the railroad hearings had been called off.

I had had about enough, so I got up to go. The Senator invited me to come back any time.

I had been a good listener. I hadn't said more than 50 words, and they were either questions or "Is that so, Senator?"

You wonder how I took it. Well, that's one of the tough angles of being a newspaper man.

This story was reprinted with permission from the Chicago Defender.

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