James Oliver Eastland

(b. 1904)

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(b. Doddsville, Mississippi, 28 Nov. 1904; d. Doddsville, 19 Feb. 1986)

US; member of the Mississippi State Legislature 1929–32; US Senator 1940–78 Born into a wealthy cotton plantation family, James Eastland was very much a product of the Old South. He grew up in Forest near Jackson, Mississippi, and attended the University of Mississippi, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Alabama; he was called to the Mississippi bar in 1927. In 1928 he was elected to the State Legislature (where he served until 1932) and thus began a lifelong career in politics in which he sought to defend the southern way of life, and especially segregation, loyalties which caused him to bolt the Democratic ticket for the Dixiecrat Party in 1948.

Appointed to the Senate in 1941 after the death of Pat Harrison, Eastland was very much part of the group of Southern Democrats whose seniority in Congress brought them immense authority despite their increasing isolation from the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Eastland rose to the powerful position of chairman of the Judiciary Committee, a position he held for twenty-two years. From this vantage point he could block civil rights initiatives and, because all federal judicial nominations required ratification by the Committee, could impede confirmation of judges whose philosophy or politics seemed too liberal. Given the growing role of the courts in the process of desegregation, Eastland's role was crucial. He was highly critical of both the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 and its author, Chief Justice Earl Warren. (Eastland supported Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett in his efforts to prevent the integration of the University of Mississippi.) Yet Eastland was a procedurally fair Judiciary Committee chairman. He scrupulously observed the conventions of senatorial courtesy and used his power pragmatically. Thus, although he held up President Kennedy's nomination of the black liberal Thurgood Marshall to the Court of Appeals in 1961–2, he ensured that his agreement to the nomination, when finally given, was in exchange for the nomination of a Mississippi friend to the bench.

Eastland was also a violent foe of Communism and served for a time as the chairman of the Internal Security Subcommittee. Part of his opposition to the civil rights movement of the 1960s was a result of his belief that it had been taken over by Communists.

Eastland's opposition to civil rights and desegregation made the passage of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programme problematic. Ultimately, however, Johnson and the Senate leadership were able to bypass the Judiciary Committee. Much of this legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, eroded Eastland's power. Blacks began to vote in the South and Eastland found he could no longer appeal to this new constituency. Other social and political changes affected the power of southern committee chairmen so that, by the 1970s, Eastland had ceded a substantial amount of influence to subcommittee chairs. Despite his long association with support of segregation, Eastland made friends with traditional liberal Democrats such as Hubert Humphrey. The changing character of Southern politics made Eastland an anomaly and he retired from the Senate in 1978.


Subjects: Politics.

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