James Oliver Eastland (November 28, 1904 – February 19, 1986) was an American politician from Mississippi who served in the United States Senate as a Democrat briefly in 1941 and again from 1943 until his resignation December 27, 1978. From 1947 to 1978, he served alongside John Stennis, also a Democrat. Eastland and Stennis were the second longest-serving Senate duo in American history, behind only Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings of South Carolina (who served together for 38 years). Eastland was also the most senior member of the Senate at the time of his resignation in 1978.
Eastland established a working relationship with FDR, as he did with presidents of both parties during his tenure in the Senate. As a result he was able to provide federal largess for Mississippi (including the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and federal relief after Hurricane Camille) throughout his career.
He was reelected five times, facing substantive Republican opposition only twice. In 1966, 4th District Congressman Prentiss Walker, the first Republican to represent Mississippi at the federal level since Reconstruction, ran against him. Walker ran well to Eastland's right, accusing him of not doing enough to keep integration-friendly judges from being confirmed by the Senate. As is often the case when a one-term congressman runs against a popular incumbent senator, Walker was soundly defeated.
In 1972, Eastland was reelected with 58% of the vote in his "closest" contest ever. His Republican opponent, Gil Carmichael, might have been aided by President Richard Nixon's landslide reelection in 49 states, including 78% of Mississippi's popular vote. However, Nixon worked "under the table" to support Eastland, who was a long-time personal friend and supporter. Nixon and other Republicans provided little support for Carmichael to avoid alienating conservative Southern Democrats. Eastland recognized that Nixon would handily carry Mississippi, and did not endorse the national Democratic candidate, George McGovern. Four years later, Eastland supported the candidacy of fellow Southern Democrat Jimmy Carter.
When the Supreme Court issued its decision in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas 347 US 483 (1954), Eastland, like most southern politicians, denounced it. In a speech given in Senatobia, Mississippi on August 12, 1955, he said: "On May 17, 1954, the Constitution of the United States was destroyed because of the Supreme Court's decision. You are not obliged to obey the decisions of any court which are plainly fraudulent [and based on] sociological considerations."
Moreover, Eastland called Brown illegal and proclaimed that "resistance to tyranny is obedience to God," a slogan held by white southerners engaged in the Massive Resistance movement (e.g., White Citizens' Council, John Birch Society).
Eastland did not mince words when it came to his feelings about the races mingling. He testified to the Senate 10 days after the Brown decision came down: “The Southern institution of racial segregation or racial separation was the correct, self-evident truth which arose from the chaos and confusion of the Reconstruction period. Separation promotes racial harmony. It permits each race to follow its own pursuits, and its own civilization. Segregation is not discrimination… Mr. President, it is the law of nature, it is the law of God, that every race has both the right and the duty to perpetuate itself. All free men have the right to associate exclusively with members of their own race, free from governmental interference, if they so desire.”
When three civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman went missing in Mississippi on June 21, 1964, he reportedly told President Lyndon Johnson that the incident was a hoax and there was no Ku Klux Klan in the state, surmising that the three had gone to Chicago :
Johnson once said that, "Jim Eastland could be standing right in the middle of the worst Mississippi flood ever known, and he'd say the niggers caused it, helped out by the Communists.
Despite this position, Eastland was a behind-the-scenes player in efforts to defuse potential violence during the desegration of the University of Mississippi in 1962 and in protecting the safety of Freedom Riders who traveled through Mississippi. Typifying Eastland's approach to racial issues, the Freedom Riders were arrested on arrival in Mississippi.
Eastland also served as a director of the Pioneer Fund, a foundation dedicated to "improving the race." (Eastland would some years later stare coldly down a committee table at Jewish Senator Jacob Javits of New York and say, "I don't like you — or your kind.") Eastland, along with Senators Robert Byrd, John McClellan, Olin D. Johnston, Sam Ervin, and Strom Thurmond, made unsuccessful attempts to block Thurgood Marshall's confirmation to the Federal Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.
Given Eastland's reputation as a segregationist, observers sometimes attribute racist anecdotes or statements to him without substantiation. Contrary to oft-published accounts, for example, Eastland and Judge Harold Cox, a notoriously racist judge, were not college roommates; they were friends, but Cox was in law school at the University of Mississippi while Eastland was an undergraduate (Eastland never graduated from college and did not attend law school).
Other widely-repeated but inaccurate rumors attributed offensive statements to Eastland during this period. Often, racist statements were attributed to Eastland, even though they may have been made by other speakers. Although Eastland was a staunch segregationist, he refrained from the most extreme rhetoric that characterized other civil rights opponents.
Eastland was appointed as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1956. Under the Senate's seniority rules, he was next in line for the chairmanship and there was no significant effort to deny him the post. He was chairman until his retirement. Ironically, his committee considered the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which Eastland bitterly opposed. Its passage caused many Mississippi Democrats to openly support Barry Goldwater's presidential bid that year, but Eastland did not publicly oppose the election of Lyndon Johnson (LBJ). Although Goldwater was heavily defeated by incumbent Lyndon Johnson, he carried Mississippi with 87% of the popular vote (his best showing in any state ) due to his opposition to federal civil rights legislation, such as the Civil Rights Act.
Eastland was often at odds with Johnson's policy on civil rights, but their friendship remained close and LBJ often sought Eastland's support and guidance on other issues. In the 1950s, Johnson was one of three senators from the South who didn't sign the Southern Manifesto, as did Eastland and most southern senators.
Contrary to popular opinion, Eastland did not use the appointment of Harold Cox to a federal judgeship as leverage against John F. Kennedy's appointment of Thurgood Marshall to a federal judgeship. Cox was nominated by Kennedy more than a year before Marshall even came up for consideration, and his nomination resulted from a personal conversation between Cox and Kennedy. The president, not wanting to upset the powerful chairman of the Judiciary Committee, generally acceded to Eastland's requests on judicial confirmations in Mississippi — Eastland's power, not his racism, was the determining factor. During his last Senate term, he served as President pro tempore of the Senate since he was the longest-serving Democrat in the Senate.
During the 1950s, Eastland was among many legislators who used an exaggerated threat of Communism for his own political agenda. Eastland served on a subcommittee investigating the Communist Party. As chairman of the Internal Security Subcommittee, he subpoenaed some employees of The New York Times, which was at the time taking a strong position on its editorial page that Mississippi should adhere to the Brown decision. The Times countered in its January 5, 1956 editorial:
During his later years, he avoided associating himself with racist stands in the face of increasing black political power in Mississippi. In fact, during this period Eastland hired black Mississippians to serve on the staff of the Judiciary Committee. Eastland noted to aides that his earlier position on race was due primarily to the political realities of the times, ie, as a major political figure in a southern state in the 1950s and 1960s. He considered running for reelection in 1978, and sought to win black support. He won the support of civil rights leader and NAACP president Aaron Henry, but he ultimately decided not to seek reelection in 1978. Due in part to an independent black candidate siphoning off votes from the Democratic candidate, Republican 4th District Representative Thad Cochran won the race to succeed him. Eastland resigned two days after Christmas, giving Cochran a leg up in seniority. After his retirement, he remained friends with Aaron Henry and sent contributions to the NAACP, but he publicly stated that he "didn't regret a thing" in his public career. He died on February 19, 1986.
The law library at Ole Miss is named after Eastland. This has caused a some controversy in Mississippi given Eastland's earlier racist positions, but the University benefited financially from Eastland's many friends and supporters, as it has done from other political figures of Eastland's era.
James Eastland was, as of 2007, the last President pro tempore who served as the permanent Senate President during a vacancy of the Vice Presidency. He actually did so twice during the tumultuous 1970's, first in 1973 between Spiro Agnew's resignation and the swearing in of Gerald Ford as Vice President, and then one year later when Ford became President and Nelson Rockefeller was sworn in as Vice President.