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The Election Case of Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi (1947)

Photo of Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi

Campaign irregularities; voter intimidation; corruption.

Petition received: Sep. 19, 1946
Referred to committee: Sep. 19, 1946
Committee reports: Jan. 2, 1947 (Defense investigation)
Jan. 3, 1947 (Campaign Expenditures)
No Senate action.

Result: Bilbo died before Senate could act.

Theodore G. Bilbo, a vocal presence in Mississippi politics for forty years, served in the state legislature and was twice elected governor before winning a seat in the United States Senate in 1934. Long an outspoken proponent of racial segregation, in the 1940s Senator Bilbo escalated his rhetoric of white supremacy in unrestrained speeches that increasingly dismayed many of his Senate colleagues and brought him to the attention of the national press. This behavior reached a climax in his 1946 reelection campaign.

Statement of the Case
On April 1, 1946, the Senate established a special committee to investigate election practices in that year's senatorial contests. Mississippi held its Democratic primary in July 1946, and on September 19 the special committee received a petition filed by a group of black Mississippi residents protesting the tactics employed by Bilbo in the state's primary election. The petitioners charged that Bilbo "conducted an aggressive and ruthless campaign . . . with the purpose . . . to effectively deprive and deny the duly qualified Negro electors . . . of their constitutional rights . . . to register and vote." According to the petition, Bilbo's "inflammatory appeals" to the white population exacerbated racial tensions and led to many incidents of violence against black voters, discouraging enough blacks from voting to affect the outcome of the primary. Naming Bilbo as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, which conducted a "reign of terror" using force and violence to win, the petitioners therefore asked the Senate to void Bilbo's election and refuse to seat him in the new Congress. This request did not come as a total surprise to the Senate. Less than three months before, on June 26, 1946, Glen H. Taylor (Democrat-ID), a strong supporter of civil rights, had asked the Committee on Privileges and Elections to investigate Bilbo's campaign speeches.

Response of the Senate--Campaign Expenditures Committee
The Special Committee to Investigate Senatorial Campaign Expenditures sent three investigators to Mississippi, where they conducted a preliminary inquiry. The findings of the initial investigation came before the committee in Washington on November 16, 1946. Chairman Allen Ellender (Democrat-LA), a self-confessed white supremacist, defended the local restrictions against black voters and recommended dismissing the charges against Bilbo. Iowa Republican Bourke Hickenlooper dissented, however, and asked that additional hearings be conducted in Mississippi. When no serious objection was voiced to Hickenlooper's proposal, the committee agreed to travel to Jackson, Mississippi.

Early in December 1946, the committee convened for four days of hearings, during which it heard testimony from more than one hundred witnesses—two-thirds of them black—who outlined local election practices that systematically restricted black registration and voting. The committee learned that Mississippi's Democratic primaries had traditionally been viewed as for whites only. A 1944 Supreme Court decision in a Texas case (Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649) had invalidated similar restrictions on the primary there, leading a number of civil rights organizations to encourage African American citizens of Mississippi to participate in the July 1946 primary. In addition, the Mississippi legislature that spring had exempted all veterans, black and white, from paying poll taxes for the past two years if they were in the service. These factors, coupled with the recent return to the state of 65,000 to 70,000 black veterans who, after their service in World War II, were anxious to exercise the right to vote, had made the Democratic primary a focus of considerable interest. During the hearings, Bilbo basked in the limelight, smiling broadly for the cameras and winking at committee members. His buoyancy and Ellender's premise that Mississippi tradition rather than Bilbo's virulent rhetoric kept blacks from the polls, were no match, however, for the orderly and chilling recitations by civil rights leaders.

On January 3, 1947, the campaign expenditures committee, specifying that Bilbo's financial conduct was in no way an issue, filed a majority report that found Bilbo guilty of nothing more than crude and tasteless campaign oratory. These senators attributed the intensity of Bilbo's 1946 anti-black campaign to his concern about the "outside agitators," such as the national press and media, that he thought were interfering in the internal affairs of Mississippi. They therefore recommended that Bilbo be permitted to take his seat in the Senate when the 80th Congress convened.

Republicans Styles Bridges (NH) and Bourke Hickenlooper submitted a minority report charging that Bilbo had violated federal laws against intimidating citizens who were exercising their rights under the Constitution. Particularly damaging were complaints that he had "advocated the use of any means" to prevent blacks from registering and voting. In the campaign, these senators wrote, Bilbo had used "vile, contemptible, inflammatory, and dangerous language" that they called "a corrupt and flagrant abuse of the right of free speech." The minority report thus concluded that, in the primary campaign, Theodore Bilbo had violated the U. S. "Constitution, the Federal Criminal Code, and the Hatch Act," and had vigorously urged the officials of his state to do the same.

Response of the Senate--National Defense Committee
The review of Bilbo's campaign practices represented only one of his problems. In November 1946, almost at the same time that the campaign expenditures committee agreed to the Mississippi hearings, the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program launched its own probe into Theodore Bilbo's association with war contractors. The inquiry developed out of reports that Bilbo had accepted financial gifts and real estate improvements from certain Mississippi companies.

The tone of these hearings, held in Washington, D.C. from December 12 to 19, 1946, differed markedly from the circus-like atmosphere of the campaign committee’s hearings. The Senate panel made little effort to conceal its personal distaste for Bilbo, who dropped the posturing and grinning he had engaged in at the earlier hearing. The defection of a Bilbo associate aided greatly in substantiating charges that the senator improperly accepted "gifts, services, and political contributions" from construction firms he had helped to gain government contracts. These illegal gifts included: a new Cadillac, a swimming pool, excavation of a lake to create an island for his home, construction of a private roadway, painting of his "Dream House No. 1," and furnishings for his "Dream House No. 2." The estimated value of these benefits, together with contributions made to the senatorial campaign of a Bilbo protégé in 1942, totaled between $57,000 and $88,000. Questionable donations, in response to Bilbo's solicitation, had also been made to build a parsonage for his Juniper Grove Baptist Church. By the time the hearings ended, the committee had gathered sufficient evidence to report to the Senate that Bilbo used his Senate office for his own personal gain. The report, signed by six of the nine members of the national defense program committee, went to the Senate on January 2, 1947.

Response of the Full Senate
The 80th Congress, in which the Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time since 1933, opened on January 3, 1947, the day the Senate received the report from the civil rights investigation. Armed with the findings of the two inquiries, Bilbo's opponents, led by Glen Taylor of Idaho, asked that Bilbo be denied his seat until the Committee on Rules and Administration could review the matter. Taylor emphasized that both the press and the public were seriously concerned about the information gathered by the committees and that many speculated that the Senate would not have the courage to act against Bilbo. The Idaho senator pointed out that precedent existed for asking a senator to stand aside when a Senate committee had already found evidence of corruption. The Senate, however, voted 38 to 20 to table Taylor's resolution. Southern senators then began a brief filibuster that blocked efforts to elect Senate leadership and organize the body for the new Congress. The impasse was broken the next day when Minority Leader Alben Barkley (Democrat-KY) announced that Bilbo needed to return to Mississippi for urgent surgery and wished his credentials to remain on the table without action until he could recover and return to Washington. Under the agreement reached, the Mississippi senator would continue to receive his Senate salary in the meantime.

Over the next few months, Theodore Bilbo, who was suffering from cancer of the mouth, underwent a series of operations which proved unsuccessful in stopping the cancer. He died on August 21, 1947, and the Senate took no further action on his case.

Theodore Bilbo's virulent rhetoric during 1946 knew no restraint, as he vilified the North, the press, black citizens, Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce, and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet, at the time he passed from the political scene, the conclusion of World War II and the return of black veterans to the United States were encouraging the emergence of an early national concern for civil rights and an end to Bilbo’s style of politics. 

Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.

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