Vardaman History Project - James Kimble Vardaman


James Kimble Vardaman (July 26, 1861 – June 25, 1930) was an American politician from the state of Mississippi, serving as Governor of Mississippi from 1904 to 1908 and in the U.S. Senate from 1913 to 1919. Vardaman, known as "The Great White Chief", advocated white supremacy. He said "if it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy."

Vardaman was born near Edna, Jackson County, Texas and moved in 1868 with his parents to Yalobusha County, Mississippi. He went on to study law and became editor of a newspaper, the Greenwood Commonwealth.

James K. Vardaman As a Democrat, Vardaman served in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1890 to 1896 and was speaker of that body in 1894. He was a major in the United States Army during the Spanish–American War and saw service in Puerto Rico.

After two failed attempts in 1895 and 1899, Vardaman won the governorship in 1903 and served one four-year term (1904–1908).

By 1910, his political coalition, comprising chiefly poor white farmers and industrial workers, began to describe themselves proudly as "rednecks", even to the point of wearing red neckerchiefs to political rallies and picnics. Vardaman advocated a policy of racism against African Americans, even to the point of supporting lynching in order to maintain his vision of white supremacy. He was known as the "Great White Chief".

Vardaman was elected to the U.S. Senate and served one term lasting from 1913 until 1919, having been defeated in his reelection bid in 1918. The main factor in his defeat was his opposition to the Declaration of War which had enabled the United States to enter World War I. Vardaman sought to return to the Senate in 1922, but was defeated in the Democratic runoff by Congressman Hubert Stephens by 9,000 votes.

Vardaman was known for his provocative speeches and quotes, once calling Theodore Roosevelt a "little, mean, coon-flavored miscegenationist." In reference to the education of black children, he remarked, "The only effect of Negro education is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook."

He died on June 25, 1930 at the Birmingham Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama at the age of 68.

Dennis Murphree, native of Calhoun County, member of the Murphree newspaper family, and later governor himself, was 17 when Vardaman spoke at the huge campaign rally at Hollis' Bridge in July 1903. In 1945 Murphree recalled that day in an article in the Calhoun County Monitor-Herald.

"It would be hard for any man of this day to explain the hold that Vardaman had on what was called the "common people" of his day and time. He was, I think, the most striking and extraordinary personality I have known.

On this day, he was clad in snow white, even his shoes and necktie were white. He was above the average in height, his hair was as black as a crow's wing, it was combed straight back over his head, and fell in waves all the way down to his shoulders. When he emphasized strongly some point, he raised his right hand with index finger pointed above his head, and swung his head from side to side causing his long black hair to sway to and fro. Enemies said that he memorized his speeches and even stood before a mirror and practiced his gestures. Be that as it may, they were perfection in oratory and his delivery was superb. His eyes wwere coal black and his skin was swarthy, makiing him look like some Indian Prince. Perhaps because he knew well that he was in the hands of friends on that day, Vardaman was never better than when he spoke at Hollis'bridge and the great crowd hung on his every word and applauded him to the echo."

Sources: Wikipedia and "The Way I Heard It - A History of Calhoun County" by Ken Nail



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