Remarkably little has been written about the late Sen. James O. Eastland, who was Mississippi’s most powerful political figure of the 20th century. Except for a 74-year-old post office/courthouse in Jackson belatedly named for him, there are few tangible reminders of ‘Big Jim’s’ 45-year career in the U.S. Senate when he dominated state politics and blocked federal civil rights legislation.
An exceedingly valuable recent book on Mississippi’s enigmatic society, ‘The Senator and the Share Cropper,’ draws a remarkable parallel between Eastland’s plantation life and that of a fellow Sunflower Countian, Fannie Lou Hamer, the stubby ex-cotton field hand whose powerful voice made her an icon of the civil rights movement.
Written by Chris Myers Asch who holds a doctorate in history from Duke, for 10 years he taught elementary school in Sunflower County with Teach for America. Asch provides a revealing insight into plantation life in the heart of Mississippi’s Delta, viewed from a white plantation owner’s perspective juxtaposed against the subservient black laboring class. Blacks sewed the rows of rich soil, hoed unwanted weeds, then picked the fluffy white cotton bolls that for a century brought wealth to the white landowners.
While in the off-season white plantation families could travel abroad, the blacks in shotgun plantation shacks bulging with kids found their only outlet singing sacred songs in their churches and listening to leather-lunged black preachers extolling faith in God as the ultimate salvation from their oppressive plantation lives.