"The Man Who Invented THE REDNECK"

 Memphis Commercial Appeal
Mid-South Magazine
March 21, 1965


"WE ARE the low brows! We are
the rednecks! Rah for Vardaman!"

   Thus rang a Mississippi political battle cry of more than half a century ago. It came from the throat of the common man, newly released from a political bondage imposed by the convention system of selecting officials.
   The red necktie became this voter's symbol. James Kimble Vardaman became his champion.
   To hear the old-timers tell it, one would think Vardaman held office forever. Actually, he served a four-year term as governor and a six-year term as United States senator. And he lost more often than he won.

   BUT SUCH WAS his eloquent power to stir the masses, so imposing his appearance, that each campaign became Armageddon.
   "Tall, broad-shouldered, handsome, raven locks down to his shoulders, magnificent in appearance," was the way one admirer described him.
   Everyone called attention to the raven locks, shoulder length, When he opposed John Sharp Williams for
the Senate in 1907, Williams backers called it the campaign of "hair vs. brains." But Williams who predicted a win by 40,000 votes. emerged with a slender 648-vote win.
   A Vardaman opponent bitter under the heckling of a pro-Vardaman crowd, pinned the term "redneck" on followers of the man known as the "Great White Chief," Far from being insulted, they took the title like a duck takes to water, and exploited it to political advantage.
   "It is a well known fact," wrote an early supporter. "that Vardaman posses" more loyal and devoted friends, and more bitter
and implacable enemies, than any other public man in Mississippi."
   The "implacable enemies" were never more in evidence than in the 1890s, when Vardaman narrowly escaped death in a gun battle on the steps of the Greenwood Post Office. Vardaman was an ardent prohibitionist, and naturally incurred the wrath of a saloon keeper named Tom Upshur.

   UPSHUR AND A MAN named Stoddard shot it out with a forewarned and forearmed Vardaman and his cousin, James Money. As it so often happens when you're helping someone else in a fight, Stoddard was a slain and Money wounded. Vardaman and the saloon keeper escaped unhurt.

Even though, as a contemporary said, a prohibitionist was about as popular in Leflore County as "a Bolshevik on Wall Street," Vardaman was compared to Moses and Jeremiah, and more than once to Jesus Christ. "They couldn't be content with just Patrick Henry," said an opponent.
   Vardaman was born in Texas, son of a Confederate soldier impoverished by the war, and was reared in Yalobusha County, Miss. He practiced law, plugged for prohibition and edited a weekly newspaper at Winona, before moving to Greenwood in the late 1880s. There, he edited the Greenwood Enterprise, and founded the Greenwood Commonwealth. He represented Leflore County in the Legislature for six years.
   When he opened his Winona law office, the story goes, was down to his last 50 cents. With characteristic generosity, he donated this a few minutes later to a fund for
a man whose house had burned.
   In a way, this was symbolic of the finan-

cial part of his political career. His campaigns were largely paid for by the small bills and pocket change his followers contributed.
   Since Reconstruction, the state had been dominated by a political hierarchy which, under the convention system of nomination, left little power in the hands of the average man.

   UNDER THAT system, Vardaman twice had failed to gain the governorship. But with the advent of the direct primary, the "Vardaman era" of Mississippi politics began. He was elected governor over two opponents in 1903.
   It was also the dawn of the era of the average voter, a revolution fully as powerful as that which is taking place in many parts of the South today.
   James K. Vardaman was the leader of the revolution. His partners were the hill farmer with 40 acres and a mule, the sawmill worker in the Piney Woods, the country storekeeper and the day laborer.
   Vardaman was perhaps the most outspoken of all white supremacists -his racial views in pamphlet form are sold by the Citizens Council today for a quarter a copy. Yet he once called out the militia, ordered a special train and took personal command to save two Washington County Negroes from a mob.
   The darling of today's conservatives, Vardaman was one of the great liberals of his time. He fought for penitentiary, governmental and educational reforms, and improved mental health facilities.
   In the United States Senate, he teamed with Bob LaFollette of Wisconsin and George Norris of Nebraska to fight for bills outlawing child labor.
   He was the arch foe of the old Mississippi system of leasing convicts for work on private plantations. The state, he told the 1906 Legislature, is "the only power which can lift the staggering vagabond from the gutter, paint upon his sin-stained brow the rose of health, renew the old time courage of the soul and make him stand erect, a man among his fellows."

   VARDAMAN watched the children who then toiled in the cotton mills:
"I have seen them with their little pinched faces, hollow chests, starved bodies and poisoned souls go out of this industrial prison...not with the elastic step of childhood... the flush of health...the bounding spirit of the normal boy, but rather like

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old men, worn and wasted, with the horizon of life fringed with hopeless pessimism."
   He never pulled punches. Angered by appointment of Negroes to certain Posts by President Theodore Roosevelt, Vardaman said "Teddy' had "the qualities of a male pup." He then apologized to dogs.
   The 1911 campaign for the Senate, in which Vardaman defeated Leroy
Percy and C. H. Alexander is still a model of rough-and-tumble Mississippi politics.
   It followed rumors - and charges of bribery with money, whisky and women - which stemmed from the "Secret Caucus" of 1910. In that caucus the Legislature chose Percy for a short term set in the Senate. The ensuing wrangling launched the statewide career of an obscure politician from Pearl River County. His name was Theodore G. Bilbo.

   BILBO ALLIED him-

self with Vardaman in 1911 and announced as a candidate for lieutenant governor. It was an alliance which Percy predicted would bring grief to Vardaman. Percy said before the campaign was over Vardaman, "with pallid lips, will be Praying to his God: 'Oh God! deliver me from this body of death'."
   Vardaman polled 76,000 votes to a few more than 50,000 for Percy and Alexander combined. Bilbo - who had been caned in Yazoo City and pistol-whipped at Starkville - polled almost as many as Vardaman.
   President Woodrow Wilson perhaps wrote the end of Vardaman's Senate career. Angered by Vardaman's vote opposing America's entry into World War I, as well as his anti-administration ballots on other wartime measures, the President made public a letter in which he declared that Vardaman's re-election would be a repudiation of the Wilson Administration


by Mississippi.

   VARDAMAN explained he had felt America's declaration of war was not necessary and pointed out that, after the declaration, he offered himself for service in France, He accused Representative Pat Harrison his opponent, of "wrapping his white-livered carcass in the American flag."
   But, by this time, Vardaman had been labeled "Herr Von Vardaman, a friend of the German Kaiser," and the campaign of 1918 was conducted amid the heated emotions of wartime.
   After his defeat by Harrison, Vardaman made one comeback attempt. He sought the vacant Senate seat of John Sharp Williams in 1922, but he was already headed for obscurity.
   Vardaman was broken in health, and sat on platforms while others spoke for him, a pitiful figure. Although his voice was silent, there was still magic in his name. The Communists, Lenin and Trotsky, were trotted out and 

draped around his neck by opponents, along with Kaiser Wilhelm.
   He lost in the runoff to Representative Hubert Stephens of New Albany 9,000 votes, out of 180,000 cast.
   The day's of greatness far behind. Vardaman moved to Birmingham to live with a daughter. He died there in 1930 and his body was returned to Jackson where thousands, remembering, filed by his casket.

   THERE ARE MANY who still remember. Go to a country courthouse on a hot Saturday afternoon in August, a day so hot the heat waves dance and play tricks on the eyes. Sit down on a bench under the big shade tree. There, next to the elderly gentleman on the end of the bench.
  Ask him to turn back the pages half a century.
    He will remember.

 

 

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