Theodore G. Bilbo (October 13, 1877–August 21, 1947), a major figure in twentieth-century Mississippi politics, was an ardent and notorious advocate of both white supremacy and white economic democracy. A native of south Mississippi's Piney Woods, he rose to political prominence as the champion of the state's poor farmers and laborers. With white supremacy a settled issue, Bilbo considered racial politics a sham that obscured the real struggle for power between his poor white constituency and the planter-business elite who had ruled the state since the overthrow of Reconstrution. Consciously subordinating race to economics, he sought to recast Mississippi politics as a battle between "the classes and the masses."
The youngest of ten children in a farm family of modest means, Bilbo graduated from Poplarville High School in Pearl River County, not far from New Orleans. He attended Peabody College and Vanderbilt University Law School, but earned a degree from neither. After several years of teaching school, he made a successful bid for the state legislature in 1907, beginning a spectacular political rise that carried him to the lieutenant governorship (1912–1916) and two terms as chief executive (1916–1920, 1928–1932).
The dramatic difference between his two gubernatorial administrations underscores the impact of the Depression on Mississippi and its politics. Bilbo's first term was, as even his most severe critics conceded, a resounding success, the culmination of two decades of rising agrarian progressivism. His second administration was a disaster. Thwarted by a hostile legislature, he achieved none of his progressive goals and bequeathed to his successor an empty treasury and a devastated economy.
Local impotence in the face of economic disaster converted many Mississippians into advocates of what they had long considered anathema—federal intervention. Bilbo led the way, embracing a doctrine of New Deal liberalism that strained the sensibilities of some other southern progressives. Elected to the United States Senate in 1934, he became arguably the most dependable New Dealer among southern Democrats. He eagerly followed the president's lead, not only on agriculture, relief spending, and social security, but also on public housing and labor legislation. He was one of only twenty Democratic die-hards who backed Roosevelt's court-packing scheme to the bitter end, and in 1940 he became Mississippi's self-proclaimed "original third-termer" in favor of Roosevelt's unprecedented re-election.
By the time of Bilbo's 1946 re-election campaign, however, Harry Truman was edging Roosevelt's refashioned Democratic Party inexorably toward civil rights for black Americans. The tension between Bilbo's commitment to economic equality for whites and his increasingly virulent opposition to political equality for blacks became unbearable. In the end Bilbo succumbed to the very racial politics he had long sought to exorcise from public debate in Mississippi. He won his own third term not as an economic liberal but as the "archangel of white supremacy." His enduring infamy for racist bigotry ironically obscures a remarkably consistent record as a loyal, if undistinguished, New Dealer.
Doler, Thurston E. "Theodore G. Bilbo's Rhetoric of Racial Relations." Ph.D. diss., University of Oregon, 1968.
Fitzgerald, Michael W. "'We Have Found a Moses': Theodore Bilbo, Black Nationalism, and the Greater Liberia Bill of 1939." The Journal of Southern History 63, no. 2 (May 1997): 293–320.
Green, A. Wigfall. The Man Bilbo. 1963.
Morgan, Chester M. Redneck Liberal: Theodore G. Bilbo and the New Deal. 1985.
Smith, Charles Pope. "Theodore G. Bilbo's Senatorial Career: The Final Years, 1941–1947." Ph.D. diss., University of Southern Mississippi, 1983.
Chester M. Morgan