Jere Nash: Was Stennis really a ‘statesman’?

To my mind, a “statesman” is someone who puts his career at risk by taking positions on public policies that may not sit well with a majority of the voters. Stennis never did that. Even though Bill makes the point that Stennis “was virtually alone among state political figures who never embraced the segregationist” Citizens Council, Stennis never spoke out against them. As Thompson points out in his book, Stennis clearly sympathized with what they were doing. Moreover, Stennis was a co-author of the Southern Manifesto, which urged Massive Resistance to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision, he voted against every piece of civil rights legislation, and, as Thompson makes clear from his research, Stennis knew exactly what he was doing. Even as late as 1984, when he was asked to endorse Robert Clark’s campaign for Congress, and his second bid to become the state’s first black congressman since Reconstruction, Stennis refused.

Those who hold to the Stennis-as-Statesman position defend it by pointing out that Stennis was never the vocal advocate for segregation that Eastland, Barnett, Hederman, Sillers and others were. Remaining silent in the face of injustice doesn’t strike me as a qualification for “statesman” especially when one’s own views parallel those of the ones giving the speeches. The chief problem with this analysis is that it seeks to absolve Stennis (and the other silent types) of any guilt in the violence. Obviously Stennis, and even Eastland, Barnett et al didn’t pull any triggers, but they either did nothing to undermine or they actively helped to create the atmosphere that allowed more violent elements of the resistance to thrive. Just because something is less ugly than the alternatives doesn’t mean it isn’t ugly.