Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

By: Sid Salter

Mississippi House Speaker William J. “Billy” McCoy was a second-generation state lawmaker, a college-educated vocational agriculture teacher, a Farmers Home Administration loan officer and briefly an auditor for the state – and yes, he was a farmer and one of his family’s successful cash crops was red wiggler worms.

McCoy’s detractors and critics played “the worm farmer” card often in talk radio rants and speeches designed to reduce a great man to a caricature of a hillbilly rube. To my great chagrin, I felt some inadvertent responsibility for that.

In 2004, McCoy invited me to his home in Rienzi along the Prentiss-Alcorn county border to conduct an in-depth interview as he took the reins as House speaker from Tim Ford. During that two-day visit, I met his wife Edith, daughter Kim, son Sam, some of his grandchildren and he took me to the home of his mother, “Miss Susie” McCoy, the widow of his legislator father, Elmer E. McCoy. At that time, she was 95 years young and active.

I published a photo of McCoy working part of his worm beds. A man who greatly valued the dignity of hard work, he was proud of his farm and his family. The photo was a mistake on my part, and I regret it to this day.

It was from “Miss Susie” that I heard about one of the McCoy family businesses, Willow Dale Worm Farm. She would live another five years and die at age 100 in 2009. She helped her family package the worms for shipping. “Miss Susie” gave her son the gift of great dignity tempered with kindness and patience with the less fortunate.

So, yes, Billy McCoy was a worm famer and a damn good one at that. Billy and his parents, his wife, and his children all worked hard and proudly lived the rural life. The McCoy farming interests were diverse and impressive.

But “the worm farmer” persona crafted by McCoy’s political enemies ignored a lifetime of his fight to better the lives of the state’s common people through bolstering public education at all levels, providing a true statewide corridor road program to provide farm-to-market access, and championing economic development projects that provided higher pay and better working conditions.

McCoy was an old school legislator, but his views on race and class were anything but old school. He was a product of the strong speaker model of House operations. His sense of loyalty and the worth of handshake commitments on legislation was strong. When those issues led to conflict or speeches in debate became too personal, McCoy was not above getting physical.

Riding the roads of his districts near Marietta back in 2004, I remember McCoy in a moment of reflection and self-examination saying: “I reckon it’s a character flaw, but I’ve just never been satisfied to take crap off of people. I don’t treat people like that, and I don’t tolerate it.”

McCoy loved to tell stories and jokes and those stories were a great part of his undeniable charm. His true legislative legacy gets lost behind the bitter two–way partisanship that marked his time as speaker.

When growing Republican strength in the House in 2008 reached a point that GOP members saw a chance to oust McCoy and take leadership of the chamber for the first time since Reconstruction by voting as a bloc and by forging a coalition with sympathetic conservative Democrats, McCoy met what he saw as partisanship with partisanship of his own.

No Republicans were appointed to committee chairmanships. Democrats controlled the money committees. And McCoy was roundly slammed by the GOP as unfair and overly partisan in his management of the House. The decision made McCoy’s tenure as speaker difficult.

My lasting memory of Speaker McCoy is of riding the road through his district with him – and he knew everyone, everyone he represented. That’s rare – and telling of his character.