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August 21, 1947
Member's Death Ends a Senate Predicament

Photo of Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi
Theodore Bilbo (D-MS)

In late July 1947, the Senate adjourned for the year without resolving a serious complaint against one of its members. Seven months earlier, facing charges of personal corruption and civil rights violations, Mississippi Democrat Theodore Bilbo presented his credentials for a new Senate term. Idaho Democrat Glen Taylor immediately demanded that the Senate delay Bilbo's swearing in until it could review the recently received findings of two special investigating committees. Angry at Taylor's action, several of Bilbo's southern colleagues launched a filibuster, which threatened to block the Senate's efforts to organize for the new Congress. They argued that the Mississippi senator should be allowed to take his seat while the Senate looked into the matter. A day later, on January 4, Senate Democratic Leader Alben Barkley temporarily broke the impasse by announcing that Bilbo was returning to Mississippi for cancer surgery and would not insist on being sworn in until he had recovered and returned to Washington.

Theodore Bilbo had been a highly controversial figure in Mississippi politics for 40 years. After two terms as governor, he entered the Senate in 1935. During the early 1940s, a growing national focus on civil rights issues spurred Bilbo to amplify his long-held views on white supremacy. As large numbers of black voters returned home to Mississippi at the conclusion of their World War II military service, Bilbo's racist utterances dominated his 1946 reelection campaign and drew national media attention.

Following his victory in the July Democratic primary, which guaranteed reelection in November, the Senate received a petition from a group of that state's African American residents protesting the senator's campaign tactics. The petition charged that Bilbo's "inflammatory appeals" to the white population had stirred up racial tensions, provoked violence, and kept many black citizens away from polling places.

Late in 1946, two special Senate committees investigated Bilbo's conduct. One looked into his campaign activities. A slim majority of that panel concluded that although he ran a crude and tasteless campaign, he should be seated. A second committee uncovered evidence that he had converted thousands of dollars of campaign contributions to his personal use. Both reports lay before the Senate as it convened in January 1947.

Following a series of unsuccessful medical procedures throughout early 1947, Theodore Bilbo died on August 21. Although his death ended the Senate's predicament over his seating, it marked only the beginning of an extended postwar struggle to protect the voting rights of all Americans.

Reference Items:

Green, Adwin Wigfall.  The Man Bilbo.  1963.  Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976.


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