Silver Lining: Bilbo Tells All

National Journal
May 1, 2014, 1:31 p.m.

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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