- Senator James Eastland: Mississippi’s Jim Crow Democrat by Maarten Zwiers
Maarten Zwiers’s book Senator James Eastland: Mississippi’s Jim Crow Democrat joins a growing literature that reconsiders white southern politicians who held powerful sway over national politics from the New Deal to the Reagan Revolution. No longer mere segregationists in these retellings, Mississippi’s James O. Eastland, South Carolina’s J. Strom Thurmond, and others are cold warriors who stifled civil rights and labor unions in the name of states’ rights and free enterprise. Such revisionism, coupled with recent explorations of Sun Belt politics, reveals the bipartisan, multiregional, and diverse ideological origins of the New Right and the decline of the Democratic South. To enter these debates, Zwiers uses a political biography of Eastland, one with a purposeful focus on the relationship between Mississippi Democrats and the national Democratic Party in the middle third of the twentieth century. Eastland becomes the great compromiser within this milieu, moving from staunch Dixiecrat to loyalist Democrat even as his party moved toward racial liberalism.
Yet the tension between the national and state Democratic parties is not exactly the full story of this book. The Democratic Party’s retaliation after the Dixiecrat revolt, Zwiers suggests, kept Eastland in line. Zwiers continually asserts that Eastland’s position as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee explains why the senator remained a Democrat even as Mississippi began to move toward the Republican Party by the mid-1950s. Though many of his constituents challenged his position, Eastland maintained that staying within the Democratic Party—and keeping his chairmanship—was the best way to keep the state’s interests represented in Washington, D.C.
Zwiers succeeds remarkably well in documenting such internal tension among Mississippi Democrats. Within this story line, Eastland becomes a moderate segregationist in an era of massive resistance, a characterization that only makes sense against the backdrop of Governor Ross Barnett’s hardline actions that incited a riot at the University of Mississippi over James Meredith’s admission. The ghosts of the Dixiecrats were ones that Eastland, though a founding father, could not control. And indeed, Eastland becomes a background character in the last few chapters that focus on the classical civil rights era. Zwiers’s investigation of gubernatorial races and the transition of the state’s GOP from the Black and Tans to rebranded Dixiecrats, overrides his intended story line and reveals a longer history of white southern Republicans and the internal disintegration of the Democratic South. Such historical work makes Zwiers’s book invaluable to scholars of modern American politics.
Who Eastland was, however, remains a mystery, though it needs unraveling to further add to the scholarly conversations about southern and national politics. Democratic senator Patrick A. (Pat) McCarran of Nevada mentored [End Page 725] the young Eastland on the Judiciary Committee, a relationship that reveals ideological similarities between the South and the West before the regions banded together under the GOP. Zwiers also treats Eastland’s racism, anti-unionism, and anticommunism as givens, the unexplained worldview of a patrician planter from the Delta. Yet Zwiers misses an opportunity to concretely link states’ rights to free enterprise, the de facto ideology promoted by the New Right, free of white supremacy. Of equal importance is the unexplored inconsistency between Eastland’s championing of free enterprise and his state’s dependence on federal largesse, which he secured through his position on the Senate Agriculture Committee. With the exception of a few anecdotes of dinners and drinks, one humorously featuring Senator Edward M. Kennedy, ever-flowing whiskey, and an office plant in desperate need of rehydration, Zwiers rarely shows how Eastland wielded his power on the Judiciary Committee to protect Mississippi’s state sovereignty against what he perceived to be an encroaching federal government. Nonetheless, Zwiers uses Eastland to reveal a much more politically dynamic Mississippi than its history as a one-party state suggests.