“Theodore Glimore Bilbo was, is, and evermore shall be God or Satan. He dwelled— dwells— in heaven or hell, but never in limbo.” So wrote A. Wigfall Green almost a quarter of a century ago, and so remains the popular perception of this colorful and controversial symbol of a faded era, though current opinion would tip the scales heavily in favor of the satanic and hellish. Theodore Bilbo is remembered almost exclusively as the Archangel of white Supremacy. His reputation as perhaps the vilest purveyor of racist rhetoric is richly deserved in light of his vehement opposition to the black civil rights movement that emerged during the last years of his career as United States senator from Mississippi. Yet, as Chester Morgan demonstrates in Redneck Liberal, the conventional image of Bilbo as merely a racist demagogue paints only half the picture. Bilbo served a full term in the Senate (1934-1940) before his political career was consumed by racism, and it is that period that is the focus of this study by Morgan.
Bilbo’s first term in the Senate coincided with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Morgan provides a thorough treatment of Bilbo’s activities in Washington and his large role in Mississippi politics. In the Senate Bilbo consistently gave strong support to virtually all New Deal social and economic programs, such as relief for the unemployed, social security, public housing, and fair labor standards, while at the same time championing the cause of the nation’s small farmers in every way he could. His crude and often repulsive style may have antagonized the more sophisticated liberal academics and bureaucrats of the time, but his first-term voting record would have been the envy of any urban New Dealer.
Morgan’s early chapters provide background on Bilbo’s long career prior to his election to the Senate (he served twice as governor of Mississippi, for instance) and also on the main trends in Mississippi politics from Reconstruction to the 1930s. An epilogue seeks to explain the well-known, virulently racist attitude of his final years. Throughout the book Morgan manages to capture the flamboyance of Bilbo’s personality and the vitality and intricacy of Mississippi politics.
Redneck Liberal—only the second book on Bilbo ever to be published—draws heavily on Bilbo’s personal correspondence, the papers of Franklin Roosevelt, and other primary sources.
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