On only the most extraordinary occasions has the Senate permitted a former member to come before the body to address senators. One of those occasions took place on April 26, 1932. Over the fierce objection of the majority leader, the Senate, by a one-vote margin, extended this unusual privilege to former Alabama Senator James Thomas Heflin.
Known as "Cotton Tom" because of his devotion to Alabama's leading agricultural commodity, the flamboyant Heflin built a political career as an unremitting opponent of equal rights for black Americans, women, and Roman Catholics.
In 1908, while a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, he had shot and seriously wounded a black man who confronted him on a Washington streetcar. Although indicted, Heflin succeeded in having the charges dismissed. In subsequent home-state campaigns, he cited that shooting as one of his major career accomplishments.
While firmly against giving the vote to women, Heflin believed they would be grateful for his role in establishing Mother's Day as a national holiday.
Elected to the Senate in 1920, Cotton Tom opposed federal child labor legislation, in part, because it might create a serious shortage of agricultural field hands. His anti-Catholicism and his support for Prohibition led him to oppose his party's 1928 presidential candidate, New York Governor Al Smith.
Heflin's endorsement of Republican Herbert Hoover outraged Alabama's Democratic leaders, who denied him their party's nomination in 1930 to another Senate term. Unstoppable, he ran as an independent, but lost decisively to John Bankhead. When he returned to Washington for a post-election session, he demanded a Senate investigation of voting fraud in hopes of overturning Bankhead's election. The inquiry lasted 15 months and cost $100,000.
In April 1932, with Heflin's term expired and Bankhead seated, the Senate prepared to vote on a committee recommendation against Heflin. At that point, the former senator got his chance to put his case to the full Senate. Originally given two hours, he took five. His face crimson, Heflin punctuated his remarks with vehement gestures and offensive racist jokes. As he thundered to a conclusion, the gallery audience, packed with his supporters, jumped to its feet with a roar of approval and was immediately ordered out of the chamber. Two days later, the Senate overwhelmingly dismissed Heflin's claim. Cotton Tom had delivered his last blast.