Former Mississippi Sen. James O. Eastland, a major force on Capitol Hill and an implacable foe of racial integration for nearly all of his long political career, died Wednesday in a Greenwood, Miss., hospital at the age of 81.
Death was attributed to “multiple medical problems, complicated at the end by pneumonia,” a spokesman for Greenwood-Leflore County Hospital said.
Gruff in manner and hulking in physique, the cigar-chomping Eastland entered the Senate in 1941 and did not retire until 1978. He was almost a stereotype of a now-vanishing breed--the Southern Democratic politicians who, for many decades, by virtue of the seniority owed to their party’s control of their home region, dominated congressional affairs.
Judiciary Panel Chairman
Eastland’s special province was the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he was chairman longer than anyone else in this century. His authority on the committee was overwhelming, and he used it, particularly in the turbulent 1960s, to delay and defeat civil rights legislation and to haggle over federal judgeships.
His will was so strong and his power so formidable that he did not hesitate to defy the wishes of presidents. On one occasion, he was able to force President John F. Kennedy to name an old Eastland crony, Harold Cox, to the federal bench by threatening to block Kennedy’s nomination of Thurgood Marshall to another court seat from which Marshall ultimately was named as the first black on the Supreme Court.
By one account, which originated with the late Robert F. Kennedy, Eastland told the then-attorney general: “You tell your brother if he gives me Cox, I will give him his nigger.”
“Big Jim” Eastland was also president pro tempore of the Senate from 1972 to 1978--a largely ceremonial post for the senior member of the Senate but one that put him third in line to the presidency, behind the vice president and the Speaker of the House.
Relations With Nixon
Although he considered himself a staunch Mississippi Democrat, Eastland often found it easier to support the policies and appointees of Republican presidents than those of more liberal Democratic chief executives, such as Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. His relations with the White House under Richard M. Nixon were so good that the Republican Administration gave him its tacit support against a GOP challenger in the 1972 election.
With the election of Georgian Jimmy Carter in 1976, Eastland moved closer to the national Democratic Party. And with changing racial conditions in the South, brought about for the most part by legislation he had opposed, he seemed to soften his segregationist views. Black leaders appeared at his political functions, and his office made a point of listening to the problems of black constituents.
Before the senator retired, longtime black leader Aaron Henry--who once branded Eastland “Mississippi’s worst enemy"--suggested that blacks consider voting for him if he sought another term.
Even some of those colleagues who sharply differed with him ideologically nonetheless liked him for his personal qualities. Liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who often battled Eastland on the Judiciary Committee, said he nevertheless would remember the senator as a friend.
“I always respected him, for both his knowledge and his civility as a senator,” Kennedy said in a statement. “His loss is a personal one for me.”
Brevity and Bluntness
Unlike many of his Southern colleagues, who reveled in picturesque oratory, Eastland relied on brevity and bluntness to make his points and occasionally seemed to enjoy deflating his longer-winded colleagues. According to one anecdote passed around the Senate, Eastland invited Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, then a newcomer, to Eastland’s hideaway for lunch.
After a few minutes of silence, Eastland suddenly asked: “Senator, do you think we can save this country?”
“Yes, we can, senator,” Hatch replied eagerly and went on at some length to elaborate.
Eastland fell silent again for a few minutes, then looked at Hatch and remarked: “Bull!”
Eastland is survived by his wife of 53 years, Elizabeth, three daughters and a son. Funeral services are scheduled for Friday in Ruleville, Miss., a short distance from Eastland’s 5,900-acre plantation home.