Modern history


IN 1903, THE YEAR Vardaman was elected governor, even W. E. B. Du Bois, the great black leader who was then considered a radical, commended “the representatives of the best white Southern public opinion,” adding “[A] partially undeveloped people should be ruled by the best of their stronger and better neighbors for their own good, until such time as they can start and fight the world’s battles alone.”

In effect, Du Bois was calling upon men like LeRoy Percy to protect the Negro from emerging southern demagogues and the mob. In order to attract labor to build his society, Percy was doing just that, with some success. Percy’s friend Alfred Stone told the American Economic Association: “If I were asked what one factor makes most for the amicable relations between the races in the delta I should say without hesitation the absence of a white laboring class, particularly of field laborers…. There were no small [white-owned] farms, no towns, no manufacturing enterprises, no foothold for the poor white, who is here a negligible, if not an absolutely unknown quantity.”

This did not make the Delta the promised land. Lynchings did occur there—one occurred even in Percy’s own Washington County—and they reverberated through the region’s overwhelmingly black population, which in some areas exceeded 90 percent of the total. And, few places in the South saw more brutality than Delta levee camps. The camps were often isolated, surrounded by jungle, where one or two white men controlled a hundred “of the most reckless meanest niggers in the world,” according to William Hemphill, a young engineer from the North who worked above Greenville and who also worked on the Panama Canal. He found the camps hellish. “You have seen a swarm of gnats bunched together. You can form some idea of how thick the mosquitoes are here…I killed a bluestriped scorpion which I found in my bedclothes.” But mostly he found violence: “The way these levee niggers shoot one another is something fearful. One got shot in a crap game last night. It didn’t even stop the game. If one of the white foremen shoots a couple of niggers on the works and it is by no means an unheard of or infrequent thing the work is not stopped…. The long arm of the law does not reach [here].” Once a levee contractor even murdered “the Mercy Man,” a white man who issued fines for mistreating mules. On the levees mules were worth more than blacks. Black levee workers recited a saying, “Kill a mule, buy another. Kill a nigger, hire another.”

Yet the Delta did offer blacks at least relative promise. Judge Robert R. Taylor of Indiana, a member of the Mississippi River Commission, pointed out that levees, by allowing the mining of the river’s wealth, also allowed “the negro to better his condition…. In considerable and increasing numbers he is buying land and becoming an independent cultivator…. Nowhere else in the South are as favorable opportunities offered to the black man as in the reclaimed Mississippi lowlands, and nowhere else is he doing as much for his own up-lifting.”

Percy and the men with whom he dominated the region, and particularly Washington County, did create something special—at least given the times. Largely because of Percy, who was on the board of one bank and influenced others, lenders did not hesitate to offer blacks mortgages. In 1900 blacks owned two-thirds of all Delta farms, probably the highest proportion of black land ownership in the country. Also largely because of Percy, Greenville had black policemen, a black justice of the peace, and every mailman in the city was black. In 1913 the Census Bureau concluded that the plantation organization was “more firmly fixed in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta than in any other area of the South.” But even sharecropping could offer opportunity. Alfred Stone founded an agricultural experiment station to develop better cotton and, as a social scientist, kept meticulous records of his settlements with sharecroppers. (He would also later make Mississippi the first state to enact a sales tax.) In 1901 the average family on his plantation cleared $1,000 after all expenses were deducted, and in 1903 they cleared roughly $700.

Mississippi outside the Delta contrasted sharply with this picture. There, whites were driving blacks off the land, burning down their barns, whipping them, forcing them to sell at a loss, murdering them. In one Mississippi county 309 men, including the sheriff, were indicted; some towns bragged that they were “nigger-free.” More important was an outbreak of lynchings of almost incomprehensible viciousness. Ho Chi Minh, then a French journalist, collected clippings that included headlines such as, from the New Orleans States, “Today a Negro Will Be Burned by 3,000 Citizens,” and from the Jackson (Mississippi) Daily News, “Negro J.H. to Be Burnt by the Crowd at Ellistown This Afternoon at 5 P.M.” The Vicksburg Evening-Post reported the lynching of a black husband and wife accused of murdering a white man: “The blacks were forced to hold out their hands while one finger at a time was chopped off. The fingers were distributed as souvenirs. The ears of the murders [sic] were cut off. Holbert was beaten severely, his skull was fractured, and one of his eyes, knocked with a stick, hung by a shred from the socket….[A] large corkscrew…. was bored into the man and woman…and then pulled out, the spirals tearing out big pieces of raw, quivering flesh.” Then the crowd burned them at the stake, after partially filling their mouths and nostrils with mud to prevent a fast death from smoke inhalation.

Vardaman, the governor, fed on, and fed, the hatred. Although he sent troops to prevent one lynching, he also said it did not matter whether innocent blacks were lynched since “[t]he good [Negroes] are few, the bad are many, and it is impossible to tell what ones are…dangerous to the honor of the dominant race until the damage is done.” Once he stated, “We would be justified in slaughtering every Ethiop on the earth to preserve unsullied the honor of one Caucasian home.” Another time he said, “If it is necessary every Negro in the State will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.”

Percy had already attacked Vardaman’s race-baiting, most publicly in the speech that Roosevelt had so liked. Since then Vardaman’s rhetoric had only grown more barbaric. When Vardaman began pursuing a seat in the United States Senate, Percy moved to block him, denouncing his racial views as “infamous,” condemning his willingness to use race “to inflame the passions and hatred of his audience, hoping out of it to gain a few paltry votes.”

At first, Vardaman tried to conciliate Percy, writing: “My dear Percy,…I believe I can be elected by a handsome majority and do not want to be cut out of the opportunity…. I wish you would come down to see me.”

Instead, Percy devoted himself to helping John Sharp Williams defeat Vardaman in 1908. Williams was Democratic leader of the U.S. House and had given the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. He could move crowds too. Yet he won by only 648 votes out of 118,344 cast. The Delta alone then had a black population of at least 171,209, and a white population of 24,137, but of course only a few hundred blacks—if that many—still voted.

But Vardaman, despite his loss, had changed the equation of power in Mississippi. The change was not wholly obvious. In the Delta and in Washington, D.C., Percy’s might was still tangible, like a hard muscle one could touch. In the Delta even Williams, himself owner of a Delta plantation, paid homage. When his son, an engineer with a degree from MIT, needed business introductions, Williams thought his own influence insufficient and wrote Percy, “I wish you would give [my son] some letters to Delta people…so he may have a fair opportunity to present his proposition.” In Washington, Anselm McLaurin, the other Mississippi senator, asked Percy to intervene with Roosevelt on a personal matter. Percy was happy to have the president do a kindness for the senator. Nor did Roosevelt’s departure end Percy’s influence. Despite opposition from the Army Corps of Engineers, he still arranged the appointment of Charles West, engineer of the Greenville Levee Board, as one of the five members of the Mississippi River Commission. And Speaker Cannon and Senator Allison continued to listen to him, especially on levees. Once, at Percy’s request and to protect levees, Cannon had even, in violation of the seniority principle, removed a congressman from one committee and replaced him with another.

Yet paradoxically, in between the Delta and Washington, in the state capital of Jackson, Percy’s power was becoming circumscribed. In the hill country of eastern Mississippi, in the piney woods of the southeast corner of the state, in the central and southwestern parts of the state, small white farmers who scratched a living from hill-country farms that took twice the effort to produce half the cotton as Delta soil resented his client corporations, resented the big Delta planters and the foreign and northern investors who owned tens of thousands of alluvial acres, resented the planters also for drinking—Mississippi passed prohibition in 1908—gambling, a general lack of God-fearingness, and because, the poorer whites well knew, the planters had contempt for them. Governors elected with their votes rarely allied with Percy. One governor was advised upon taking office to “whip” Percy and his friends: “You cannot conciliate them and retain your self-respect. They demand nothing short of the earth.”

As a result, Percy was forced to retreat to the Delta, where he still had the votes to humble any adversary. He wanted only one thing from these governors: they appointed the levee board, and he wanted a say in those appointments. Usually, he got a say, even if he had to go through a third party to do so.

But the river was not the only rising force that threatened to inundate Percy’s Delta. And Percy, not levees, would have to hold this new force back.

In 1910, Senator McLaurin died in office, leaving two years of his term unfilled. The state legislature would choose his successor. The leading candidate, by far, was Vardaman.

Percy again threw everything he had into preventing Vardaman’s elevation to the Senate. Everything he had tried to build was at stake. Vardaman threatened “the welfare of the state and the peaceful relationship existing between the races,” Percy protested. Defeating him would be “a life and death struggle.” And this time Percy decided to run himself.

THE CONTEST was one in which backroom deals and maneuvers, not popular vote, would decide the winner. To counter Vardaman’s overwhelming lead, Percy joined with his rivals and enemies to settle on a common strategy. First, they decided that, although the state legislature did not contain a single Republican, and although the legislators would be using the legislative chamber for votes, the legislators would meet formally as a party caucus to choose a Democratic nominee. This allowed secret balloting, so a legislator could vote against Vardaman without risking his constituents’ wrath. Only for the formal election of the senator—ratifying a selection already made—would they legally convene as a legislature. Vardaman supporters immediately condemned this stratagem as “the Secret Caucus.” Second, to dilute Vardaman’s strength they encouraged favorite-son candidates to run. Third, they agreed that candidates who dropped out should urge their supporters not to switch to Vardaman but instead to rally around whatever opponent seemed strongest.

On the first vote Vardaman received 71 votes, more than double his closest rival. Percy received 13. But Vardaman’s opponents totaled 99 votes. Vardaman fell short of a majority. The fight had begun.

It became a grand show for Jackson, the state capital that had only just become a city. In 1900 its population had been 7,000; in 1910 it was 21,000. Although streets were unpaved, streetcars ran throughout it. Automobiles were so common they no longer frightened horses and mules. There were wooden sidewalks that lasted for several years before they rotted. Great stone buildings were rising. Department stores sold suits for $125—the annual salary of most Mississippi teachers. The Edwards House charged $2 a night, an enormous sum; there the large Percy party took suites of rooms. Despite a state prohibition law, whiskey flowed freely both in the Percy headquarters and in the Lemon Hotel, which Vardaman, a prohibitionist, used for his headquarters. But only Percy had real money. He and his brothers Walker and Willie, prominent attorneys in Birmingham and Memphis who came to Jackson to help, represented many of the major corporations doing business in the South.

There was business to do. The Mississippi legislature was a swamp, “timid and third-rate,” thick with petty men greedy for small things. But the pettiness and greed kept the anti-Vardaman coalition together over an amazing six weeks, with votes taken, on the average, more than once each day. It was six weeks of chicanery, drinking, prostitution, deal-making, vote-peddling, and corruption. The legislature adjourned for Mardi Gras, as dozens of members took the Illinois Central to New Orleans, some no doubt on Percy-supplied but illegal railroad passes. At one point the members adjourned the caucus, convened as the legislature, passed a law creating seventy-nine new county attorneys so that the anti-Vardaman governor had more offices with which to buy votes, then adjourned as a legislature and reconvened as a caucus.

Vardaman never received less than 65 votes nor more than 79. But gradually, support began to coalesce around Percy. One after another, other contenders dropped out while still opposing Vardaman. After fifty-seven ballots the coalition agreed to support Percy, who would face Vardaman alone. Sitting on the floor of the legislature, Percy leaned over to his campaign manager and said, “Crump, let’s just put it to the touch.”

Percy won, 87 to 82. Vardaman ran back and forth around the rostrum, screaming that his opponents were “black as the night that covers me!”

The caucus then convened as the legislature and officially elected Percy 157 votes to 1. The one went to John C. Kyle, not Vardaman, who would set no precedent of splitting the Democratic Party.

The next day, February 25, 1910, Percy returned to Greenville at 7:05 P.M. Two brass bands met the train, men and women shook cowbells, fireworks exploded. A parade began, led by torch-carrying men, then the bands, then a procession of all the twenty-six automobiles in Greenville, then marchers. Thousands of people lined the streets; it seemed the entire Delta had gathered, many more than the population of Greenville. The parade ended at the Opera House. It was chaos. “Swinging perilously from the railing around the balcony was a perfect sea of shouting men yelling for Greenville’s favorite son,” reported the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. A dozen men spoke, but none could be heard. Strangely, the excitement did not energize Percy, who had stood in the car so exhausted that friends worried he might fall out. When he rose, a roar shook the hall. Quieting the bedlam, he held up his hands and said, “I am not going to make a political speech tonight—not because I am tired—but because I don’t have to. I’m among friends at home. I have been away from you for seven weeks, and those weeks seem like so many years, and tonight I know as I have never known before, as I never realized how I could know, the full meaning of ‘home sweet home.’”

IN WASHINGTON not only John Sharp Williams but Roosevelt, Jacob Dickinson, the former Illinois Central counsel who was now secretary of war, and Edward White, the chief justice of the Supreme Court—Percy and he were frequent poker players at the exclusive Boston Club in New Orleans—made Percy at home.

But he had won little respite for the Delta. In a year and a half he would have to face Vardaman again, this time in a statewide primary.

While Percy began making himself at home in Washington, Vardaman began campaigning before huge, frightening crowds. Vardaman declared: “This is a contest for supremacy between the man whose toil produces the wealth of this country, and the favored few who reap the products of that toil. I expect to win by the largest margin ever received in Mississippi.”

Meanwhile, the Jackson Democrat-Star called “the Secret Caucus…the most disgraceful political farce ever enacted at our state capital.” The Columbus Dispatch avowed, rightly, that Vardaman’s defeat “was brought about by a hundred men, representing…the corporations of the state,…the money of the state.” The Laurel Ledger denounced “the multiplicity of influences that culminated in [Vardaman’s] defeat.”

Then Theodore Bilbo, a state senator, emerged. A hater who would later, as a U.S. senator, publicly use words like “kikes,” “dagos,” and “niggers” (in 1995 at the Million Man March, Louis Farrakhan invoked Bilbo’s name as a symbol of racism), Bilbo accused a Percy supporter of having attempted to bribe him to vote for Percy. The accused man won easy acquittal—the jury stayed out eighteen minutes. But the charges compounded the public revulsion over the caucus. And Bilbo announced his own candidacy for lieutenant governor. The campaign had begun.

Underneath lay the issue of race. And Percy, who had sought a Senate seat tenaciously, seemed diffident. For months he delayed putting together a campaign organization and constantly displayed political insensitivity. A New York Times reporter described him as “suave and dignifiedly courteous” to his equals, “condescending but still affable” to those beneath “his estimate of himself on birth or money,” but “overbearing toward the hoi-polloi beneath his altitudinous orbit.” Far worse, in one speech, LeRoy equated Negroes and poor whites: “They say I’m a big Greenville aristocrat, and don’t care anything about the common man. There are people on my place, white and dark, who have lived there all their lives. I’ve taken care of them, and I’ll continue to take care of them.”

Outside the Delta, angry crowds heckled him. They wanted to know about his black servants, about his hunting on the Sabbath, about his churchgoing, about his drinking, about his wife’s Catholicism.

Percy reciprocated with contempt. The crowds were peasants, Anglo-Saxons, while the Percys considered themselves descended from nobles, the Norman conquerors of the Anglo-Saxons, from Harry Percy, Shakespeare’s Hotspur. At one rally, LeRoy’s son Will “looked over the ill-dressed, surly audience, unintelligent and slinking, and heard him appeal to them for fair treatment of the Negro…. They were the sort of people who lynched Negroes, that mistake hoodlumism for wit, and cunning for intelligence, that attend revivals and fight and fornicate in the bushes afterwards.” LeRoy himself, interrupted during a speech with shouts of “Hurrah for Vardaman!” “Hurrah for Bilbo!,” called the crowd “cattle” and “rednecks.”

Vardaman reacted with mockery, arriving at rallies on carts drawn by oxen while his supporters began wearing red ties. “We are the low-brows! We are the rednecks! Rah for Vardaman!” the crowds shouted.

On July 4, 1911, Percy addressed the angriest crowd yet at Lauderdale Springs, where he distastefully shared a platform with Bilbo. Five thousand people were seething before him. Will described the scene: “When Father rose to speak he was greeted by a roar of boos, catcalls, hisses, and cries of ‘Vardaman! Vardaman!’…The din was insane and intolerable…. I was glad to observe Billie Hardie with his pistol across his lap. Father faced that obscene pandemonium, paused for the courtesy of silence, and when he did not receive it, his eyes narrowed. Then burning cold insults poured from his lips, he jeered them as cowards afraid to listen, and dared them to keep on.”

Finally, the crowd fell silent while all the vileness of the campaign welled up in LeRoy. He did not give a speech. He unleashed a torrent of vitriol, first on Vardaman. Then he pointedly turned his back on Bilbo, called him a liar, tongue-lashed him while Bilbo reddened, compared standing near him to picking up a “striped caterpillar” out of the muck and swallowing it “to see how strong my stomach was.” In a final mockery, the crowd cheered and cheered.

Vardaman received 79,369 votes in the 1911 primary, and Charlton Alexander, who entered the race when Percy showed weakness, received 31,490. Percy, the incumbent senator, got 21,521. Bilbo won his race with comparable ease.

One could hardly suffer a more crushing loss. Teddy Roosevelt wrote Percy: “My dear Senator, I am sure you would be pleased if you knew how men who in the right sense of the word are gentlemen in public life, in entirely different sections of the country, men such as Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts…have talked about your being in the Senate, and then about your leaving it. It was a piece of national good fortune to have you in the Senate; it is a calamity from the standpoint of the nation that you have been beaten.”

ELSEWHERE IN THE SOUTH, others like Vardaman—or worse—were also winning elections, men like Tom Watson in Georgia, Thomas Heflin in Alabama, Ben Tillman in South Carolina. (When Roosevelt dined with Booker T. Washington in the White House, Tillman warned it “will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers before they will learn their place again.”)

The men of Percy’s class had ruled in their own interest and in class interest. But they had had a code of honor and only, at worst, personal hatreds. They were better than those who were replacing them, who had a darkness in the soul.

The Percys of the world, the patricians, the “Bourbons,” the “best” white men to whom even Du Bois looked for protection, still controlled the money of the South, but only in a narrow strip of the Delta and in the state of Louisiana did they still control the politics. Of seventy-nine counties in Mississippi in 1911, Percy carried only five, all in the Delta, which represented less than half of it. Only in Washington County did he win an absolute majority. Percy’s empire, and that of all the old aristocracy of the South, had shrunk to one county.

Even the river brought home the change. In 1912 the Mississippi rose higher than it ever had. It spilled over in many places, crashed through in others. In Greenville, Percy helped organize a flood fight and held his front against the river. But just above Washington County, the New York Times reported, an engineer who ran out of sandbags “ordered…several hundred negroes…to lie down on top of the levee and as close together as possible. The black men obeyed, and although spray frequently dashed over them, they prevented the overflow that might have developed into an ugly crevasse. For an hour and a half this lasted, until the additional sandbags arrived.”

The men were convicts, and the Times called the idea “brilliant.” But Percy did not approve. To him men were economic units competing with other men, not with sandbags. He would not have other such incidents. No local paper mentioned it. With new energy Percy concentrated on maintaining in the Delta, or at least Washington County, the society he had envisioned.

After leaving the Senate for the last time, Percy wrote a friend: “If I can keep this small corner of the United States in which I reside, comparatively clean and decent in politics and fit for a man to live in, and in such a condition that he may not be ashamed to pass it on to his children, I will have accomplished all that I set out to do. A good deal has been written about ‘shooting for the stars.’ I have never thought much of that kind of marksmanship…. I rather think it is best to draw a bead on something that you have a chance to hit. To keep any part of Mississippi clean and decent in these days, is a job that no man may deem too small.”

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