John Bell, Ol' Ross, And Mr. Bill
Bill Minor's column of today notes the U. S. Senate Democratic caucus's decision not to strip Connecticut's Joe Lieberman of his committee chairmanship for backing the Republican John McCain for president. Mr. Bill then takes us on another stroll down political memory lane.
"Back in the 1964 presidential race, Mississippi Rep. John Bell Williams, a hard-line segregationist, supported Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona against President Lyndon B. Johnson..."
John Bell, who also campaigned for Goldwater in other Southern states, headlined a rally for the Arizonan at the Mississippi Coliseum. I consider Williams the best Mississippi political orator of my lifetime, and I watched on live TV as he stood before the overflow crowd and thundered, "In my heart I know he's right!" One of only six states carried by Goldwater, the Magnolia State voted 87.1 percent for him.
"The House Democratic Caucus not only stripped Williams of his committee chairmanship, but wiped out his seniority..."
"What did Williams do? Rather than switch to the Republican Party, he resigned his seat and returned to Mississippi to run for governor in the 1967 Democratic Primary."
John Bell lost 18 years' seniority. I believe that the man from Raymond, in 1964, was already looking toward the 1967 governor's race. Mr. Bill's memory is a little faulty here, as Williams did not resign his seat until after he had been elected governor. He was re-elected to Congress in 1966, and had he lost the governor's race, he would have kept his House seat.
In the February 1968 special election to fill John Bell's House seat, Charles Evers of Fayette, field secretary of the state NAACP, led the first round but lost the March runoff to Charlie Griffin of Utica, who had been John Bell's administrative assistant. Both Evers and Griffin were Democrats.
"In what is regarded as Mississippi's last openly racist gubernatorial election Williams defeated William Winter for the Democratic nomination."
John Bell was definitely our last segregationist governor, but I don't remember him openly injecting race into the 1967 campaign. Winter, then the state treasurer, felt compelled to say that he had "always defended" segregation and to note that his ancestor had ridden in the Civil War with General Nathan Bedford Forrest, from whom Winter had gotten his middle name.
The rabid segregationist in the race was Jimmy Swan, a Hattiesburg radio station owner, who promised a system of "free, white, private, segregated schools." Since Swan was cutting into former governor Ross Barnett's base, Barnett ran radio ads in south Mississippi in which he said, "If you want private schools, Ross Barnett will see that you get them." Swan nonetheless finished a strong third in the Democratic primary and Barnett a distant fourth.
"One of the most hilarious scenes ever in Mississippi politics came during the first primary between... Williams and former Gov. Ross Barnett over the 'tapes.' Everyone knew the 'tapes' meant recorded conversations between Barnett and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and his brother, President John F. Kennedy, preceding the  Ole Miss crisis over the admission of James Meredith."
"In a finger-shaking, vilification-tossing clash - poetically, at a White Citizens Council forum - Williams discombobulated Barnett by asking him about 'deals and underhanded agreements' he made with the Kennedys over admitting Meredith. Barnett tells Williams: 'bring out your tape, if you've got one; bring it out and play it.'"
I don't recall who sponsored it, but there was a forum held at the Masonic Temple on Capitol Street, just west of downtown Jackson. John Bell mentioned "tapes" and "deals" between Governor Barnett and the Kennedys. When Barnett spoke, he angrily shook his finger at Williams and said, "Ross Barnett made no deals! You got to either put up or shut up!" John Bell was the one who appeared to be chastened by this exchange. When William Winter's turn came, he joked that he didn't know what the temperature was in the audience, "but it's pretty hot up here." (Years later, the tapes of the Barnett-Kennedy phone conversations were made public. They revealed Barnett to be two-faced and largely concerned with maintaining his image as a staunch segregationist.)
It's also worth noting that that 1967 race included one former governor, Barnett, and three future governors-- Williams, Winter, and Bill Waller Sr., the Hinds County district attorney, who finished fifth in the Democratic primary.
"The Williams governorship became one of the surliest the state has ever experienced..."
John Bell banned Bill Minor from his press conferences, so there was no love lost between the two of them.
"... [Governor Williams's] refusal to appoint blacks to county draft boards..."
Waller, who succeeded John Bell in 1972, integrated the state highway patrol and appointed the first blacks to state agencies in modern times. Waller also eliminated the notorious state Sovereignty Commission by vetoing its funding.
"Williams' best time came after Hurricane Camille hit the Gulf Coast in August, 1969... . ... After his heroic post-Camille stand, Williams virtually disappeared from public view."
This is the first time I've known Mr. Bill to say anything positive about John Bell. Williams appeared on TV after the killing of several students in the riots at Jackson State University in May 1970; he defended the police. Charles Evers rebutted what he had said, pointing out that Governor Williams would soon be gone from office.
John Bell supported his former lieutenant governor, the Democrat Charles Sullivan of Clarksdale, in the 1978 race to succeed U. S. senator Jim Eastland, which was ultimately won by Republican congressman Thad Cochran. Williams also attended a number of the Jackson meetings held for Ronald Reagan's presidential candidacy in 1980; he addressed at least one of them. I remember seeing him in one of the hallways of the Coliseum Ramada Inn, fielding questions from several reporters.
Williams died of a heart attack in 1983 at age 64.
 Goldwater's campaign slogan was, "In your heart you know he's right." The Democrats sometimes retorted, "But in your guts you know he's nuts."