John Stennis

(b. 1901)

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(b. De Kalb, Mississippi, 3 Aug. 1901; d. Jackson, Mississippi, 23 Apr. 1995)

US; Senator 1947–88 Stennis served in the US Senate for forty-one years and at the time of his retirement only one Senator had served longer. He was one of the phalanx of conservative Democrats from the south who dominated the Senate. Committee chairmanships at this time were allocated on the basis of seniority. Because many southern seats were virtually one party constituencies they were able to collar most of the influential positions. Stennis served through the south's transition from being racially segregated to being integrated. He was brought up in Mississippi and eventually won his way to University of Virginia Law School, from which he graduated. He then practised law for a few years. As soon as he graduated in 1928, he was elected to the Mississippi legislature (1928–32). He served as district attorney (1932–7) and was appointed, in 1937, and then elected as a circuit judge in 1938, 1942, and 1946. In 1947 he filled a vacancy in the Senate for Mississippi. He eventually succeeded another southerner, Richard Russell, as chairman of the Armed Services Committee in 1969. He shamelessly used his post to bring military installations to his state and the military had few stronger supporters for their demands for money and hardware. Though a firm supporter of racial segregation (indeed, it would have been impossible to get elected without such a policy) he was relatively liberal for Mississippi. But he ignored the plight of the many blacks in Mississippi and firmly believed that Washington should leave the states, particularly those in the south, alone. He came to terms only slowly with the consequences of the Civil Rights Act (1964). He was a signatory of the ‘Southern Manifesto’ (1954) which urged resistance to the Supreme Court's decision to end segregation. He voted against every piece of civil rights legislation until 1982. He was the prime mover in the War Powers Bill (1971) to limit the President's power to commit American troops abroad without a formal declaration of war. It was said that the actor Charles Laughton modelled himself on Stennis's accent and manners in playing the Southern Senator in the film Advise and Consent (1962).

Subjects: Politics.

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