James K. Vardaman
by Clayton Rand
 Date Unknown

 

   AMONG Mississippi's colorful personalities none was as picturesque as James K. Vardaman. His parents moved from Copiah County, Mississippi, to Edna, Texas, in 1858. There James was born July 26, 1861. When his father returned to his devastated farm, following four years service with the Confederacy; the family made its way back to Mississippi in a wagon:
   James' education was limited to a few short terms in a log school house near Tillotoba. From then on he was self-taught. He farmed, cut crossties, and with his first earnings purchased a wagon and a yoke of oxen. On long hauls he digested Blackstone's Commentaries.

   When he had saved $200 he went to Carrollton to live with an uncle, where he had access to an excellent library. Admitted to the bar he began the practice of law and in 1883 he moved to Winona, where he hung out his shingle while editing The Winona Advance.
   In 1890 Vardaman moved to Greenwood, where he edited The Greenwood Enterprise for six years. He represented Leflore County in the legislature from 1890 to 1896, and during his last term was speaker of the house. In 1896 he established The Greenwood Commonwealth . Pronounced in his views, he wielded a vigorous and trenchant pen in the cause of the masses.
   With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War he volunteered, saw service at Santiago, and was promoted from captain to major.
   He had been an unsuccessful candidate for governor in 1895 and in 1899. Unable to overcome party opposition under the convention system of electing candidates, Vardaman became a strong advocate for the passage of primary election laws, and with their adoption was elected governor in 1902.
   Tall, broad-shouldered and handsome, wearing his raven locks down to his shoulders and clothed in spotless white, he was magnificent in appearance. He canvassed the state in an eight-wheeled log-wagon drawn by white oxen, and became the popular idol of a people to whom he was the Great White Chief.
   Haunted perhaps by the dark days of Reconstruction he was obscessed with racial antagonism. When elected he claimed his victory as one for the "White Supremacy of Mississippi," a triumph of the common people over the favored few. The first governor to be inaugurated in the New Capitol his address on that gala occasion was an oratorical classic. To those of us who in our youth were moved by his matchless eloquence, the memory of him lives in our emotions.

 

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   During his administration two new agricultural experiment stations were located, a school text-book commission was provided, Labor Day was made a legal holiday, a new code of laws was adopted, sweeping penitentiary reforms were initiated, vocational training was added to the curricula of the schools for the blind and deaf, scientific methods in the treatment of the insane were introduced, the prevailing interest rate was decreased from 10 to 8 percent, the departments of Agriculture and the State Board of Health were created--and the Confederate Veterans' Home was established at Beauvoir.
   Before his term of office expired he became a candidate for the United States Senate. Congressman John Sharp Williams, his opponent, was elected by only 648 votes in one of the most spectacular and scorching campaigns ever waged in Mississippi.
   In. 1908 Vardaman established and edited The Issue, in Jackson, and upon the death of Senator A. J. McLaurin, became a candidate for his unexpired term. Out of the political plotting of the time came the "Secret Caucus," and Leroy Percy was elected.
   Popular indignation resulted in the election of Vardaman in 1911 over his two opponents. When he took his seat in the Senate in 1913, the eye of America was on this fire-eating Mississippian, who had been publicized as a demagogue and a fanatic. His conscientious application, however, to committee assignments, his deep learning, courageous views and pleasing personality soon won him many friends.
   Then came the World War. James K. Vardaman strenuously opposed President Woodrow Wilson's war policies. He was one of that "little group of willful men," and was one of the six in the Senate who voted against the resolution declaring war against Germany. Speaking in the Senate to that resolution, he said,

"Nothing will be settled by the United States entering into this war except the question of superiority of strength."
   There comes a crisis now and then in history when it becomes necessary for a man of courage and conviction to stand alone. James K. Vardaman, soldier and son of a soldier, met that test, and he had a premonition he was committing political suicide when he did it.
   A victim to war's hysteria he was not returned to the Senate. Crushed in spirit, broken in body and mind, the Great White Chief lived with his daughters in Birmingham, Alabama, until he died June 25, 1930. His body lay in state in Jackson, where thousands filed by to pay homage to his memory.
   No man in Mississippi was as ardently loved and despised. It will take the searchlight of other generations to penetrate the political prejudices of our time and delineate his genius. The unbiased chronicler will find, however, that he was as honest as he was sincere. In his last heroic stand in the Senate he arose to the stature of a statesman. Farmer, crosstie-hewer, lawyer, editor, orator, soldier, governor and senator, he takes his rightful place among the state's immortals.

   Time is a wonderful healer. To look back upon prejudiced days from the perspective of the present reveals much that should give the living pause to think. To do one's job the best one knows how, and leave the rest to the judgment o f the future, is the only safe and wise course to pursue.

MISSISSIPPI POWER & LIGHT COMPANY
A Mississippi institution doing its part industrially and economically in the service of the people

 

Original Article

 

Clayton Rand was born in Wisconsin and moved to Mississippi at the age of seven.  He graduated from Mississippi A&M College (now Mississippi State University) in 1911 and from Harvard in 1913, later attending Harvard Law School.  In 1919 he bought the Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, Mississippi and developed it into one of the outstanding weekly publications in the South.  Later he established two other newspapers, the DeKalb Democrat and Tunica Times, both in Mississippi.  Until his death in 1971 he owned and operated the Dixie Press in Gulfport Mississippi. In 1925-26 he was president of the Mississippi Press Association and in 1930 he became a director of the National Editorial Association, later becoming president in 1936.  He was the winner of two national editorial awards and wrote a column "Crossroads Scribe" for a large group of newspapers, including the Chicago Daily News, Tulsa World, New Orleans Times-Picyaune, Philadelphia Bulletin and Cincinnati Enquirer. Clayton Rand wrote "Ink on My Hands" and "Sons of the South" as well as other books.