James K. Vardaman

Last updated

James K. Vardaman
James Kimble Vardaman.jpg
United States Senator
from Mississippi
In office
March 4, 1913 – March 3, 1919
Preceded by Le Roy Percy
Succeeded by Byron P. Harrison
36th Governor of Mississippi
In office
January 19, 1904 January 21, 1908
Lieutenant John Prentiss Carter
Preceded by Andrew H. Longino
Succeeded by Edmond Favor Noel
Member of the Mississippi House of Representatives
In office
Personal details
James Kimble Vardaman

(1861-07-26)July 26, 1861
Jackson County, Texas, C.S.
DiedJune 25, 1930(1930-06-25) (aged 68)
Birmingham, Alabama, U.S.
Resting placeLakewood Memorial Park, Jackson, Mississippi, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s)Anna Burleson Robinson
Military service
Nickname(s)"The Great White Chief"
AllegianceFlag of the United States (1896-1908).svg  United States of America
Branch/service Seal of the United States Department of War.png United States Army
Rank Union army maj rank insignia.jpg Major
Battles/wars Spanish–American War

James Kimble Vardaman (July 26, 1861 June 25, 1930) was an American politician from the U.S. state of Mississippi and was the Governor of Mississippi from 1904 to 1908. A Democrat, Vardaman was elected in 1912 to the United States Senate in the first popular vote for the office, following adoption of the 17th Amendment. He defeated incumbent LeRoy Percy, a member of the planter elite. Vardaman served from 1913 to 1919.


Known as "The Great White Chief", Vardaman had gained electoral support for his advocacy of populism and white supremacy, saying: "If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy." [1] He appealed to the poorer whites, yeomen farmers, and factory workers.

Early life and education

Vardaman was born in Jackson County, Texas, in July 1861. [2] He moved to Mississippi, where he studied law and passed the bar. He settled in Greenwood, Mississippi, becoming editor of The Greenwood Commonwealth. This newspaper is still in publication as of 2015.


Vardaman along with James Thomas Heflin and Ollie Murray James in 1912. Sen. James Kimble Vardaman, James Thomas Heflin, Ollie James between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915.jpg
Vardaman along with James Thomas Heflin and Ollie Murray James in 1912.
Vardaman during his time as a U.S. senator. Senator Vardaman.jpg
Vardaman during his time as a U.S. senator.

After the Reconstruction era, Mississippi election campaigns were frequently marked by violence and fraud. A biracial coalition of Republicans and Populists briefly controlled the governorship and Mississippi House in the late 1880s.

As a Democrat, Vardaman served in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1890 to 1896 and was elected as speaker of that body in 1894. He was known for his populist appeal to the common man. The Democrats took action to ensure they did not lose power again in the state. After having gained control of the legislature by suppressing the black vote, they passed a new constitution in 1890 with provisions, such as a poll tax and literacy test, that raised barriers to voter registration and in practice disenfranchised most blacks.

Referring to the 1890 Mississippi state constitution, Vardaman said:

There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. ... Mississippi's constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics. Not the 'ignorant and vicious', as some of the apologists would have you believe, but the nigger. ... Let the world know it just as it is. ... In Mississippi we have in our constitution legislated against the racial peculiarities of the Negro. ... When that device fails, we will resort to something else. [3]

Vardaman was commissioned as a major in the U.S. Army during the Spanish–American War. He served in Puerto Rico.

Vardaman ran twice in Democratic primaries for governor, in 1895 and 1899, but was not successful. The state was virtually one-party, and winning the Democratic primary established a candidate as the winning candidate for office. In 1903 Vardaman won the primary and the governorship, serving one four-year term (1904–1908).

In late December 1906, he went to Scooba, in rural Kemper County, with the Mississippi National Guard, to ensure control was established. Whites had rioted against blacks there and in Wahalak and feared retaliation; in total, two white men were killed and 13 blacks. The events were covered by the Associated Press and the New York Times, among other newspapers. [4] [5]

By 1910, his political coalition, comprising chiefly poor white farmers and industrial workers, began to identify proudly as "rednecks." They began to wear red neckerchiefs to political rallies and picnics. [6]

Vardaman advocated a policy of state-sponsored racism against African Americans, saying that he supported lynching in order to maintain his vision of white supremacy. [1] From 1877 to 1950, Mississippi had the highest number of lynchings in the nation. [7] He was known as the "Great White Chief". [8]

Vardaman was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1912 in the first popular election of senators, defeating the incumbent LeRoy Percy, a member of the planter elite. Vardaman served one term, from 1913 until 1919. He was defeated in his primary reelection bid in 1918. The main factor in Vardaman's defeat was his vote against the US Declaration of War on Germany and entry into World War I. Only five other Senators voted with him.

Vardaman ran in the Democratic primary for the US Senate in 1922, but was defeated in the primary runoff by Congressman Hubert Stephens by 9,000 votes. [9]


Vardaman was known for his provocative speeches and quotes, once calling Theodore Roosevelt a "little, mean, coon-flavored miscegenationist." [10] 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." [11] "The knowledge of books does not seem to produce any good substantial result with the Negro, but serves to sharpen his cunning, breeds hopes that cannot be fulfilled, creates an inclination to avoid labor, promotes indolence, and in turn leads to crime." [12] :105

After Tuskegee University president Booker T. Washington had dined with Roosevelt, Vardaman said the White House was "so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have taken refuge in the stable." [13]

Referring to Washington's role in politics, Vardaman said: "I am opposed to the nigger’s voting, it matters not what his advertised moral and mental qualifications may be. I am just as much opposed to Booker Washington, with all his Anglo-Saxon reenforcement, voting, as I am to voting by the cocoanut-headed, chocolate-colored typical little coon, Andy Dotson, who blacks my shoes every morning. Neither one is fit to perform the supreme functions of citizenship." [14] [15]

Personal life, death and legacy

Vardaman married Anna Burleson Robinson. Their son, James K. Vardaman, Jr., later was appointed as Governor of the Federal Reserve System, serving from 1946 to 1958. [16]

The former Vardaman Hall at the University of Mississippi University of Mississippi Vardaman Hall.jpg
The former Vardaman Hall at the University of Mississippi

Vardaman died on June 25, 1930 at the age of 68 at Birmingham Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. [17]

In July 2017, the University of Mississippi announced that Vardaman's name would be removed from a building which has borne his name since 1929. [18] [19]

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  1. 1 2 Public Broadcasting Service (September 2008). "People & Events: James K. Vardaman". American Experience . Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Archived from the original on March 20, 2012. Retrieved September 21, 2008. If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.
  2. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
  3. McMillen, Neil R. "The Politics of the Disfranchised". Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow. pp. 41–44. Retrieved August 1, 2015.
  4. "Whites in Race War Kill Blacks Blindly/ Innocent Negroes Shot in the Mississippi Trouble", New York Times, 26 December 1906; accessed 20 March 2017
  5. Associated Press , "Situation in Scooba Is Now Under Full Control", Pensacola Journal (front page), 28 December 1906; accessed 20 March 2017
  6. Albert D. Kirwan, Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics 1876–1925 (1951), p. 212
  7. Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, 2nd edition Archived June 27, 2018, at the Wayback Machine , Equal Justice Initiative, 2015
  8. Mullins, Philip. "The Revolt of the Rednecks". The Ancestors Of George & Hazel Mullins. University of Texas at Austin.
  9. Street, William B. (March 21, 1965). "The Man Who Invented The Redneck". The Commercial Appeal .[ permanent dead link ]
  10. "Theodore Roosevelt and Civil Rights". Theodore Roosevelt Association . Retrieved September 21, 2008.
  11. Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns (2010), p. 40
  12. "The Earliest Black Graduates of the Nation's Highest-Ranked Liberal Arts Colleges". Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (38). 2002. pp. 104–109. JSTOR   3134222.
  13. Wickham, DeWayne (February 14, 2002). "Book fails to strip meaning of 'N' word". USA Today . It is as noxious today as in 1901 when Mississippi Sen. James Vardaman said after Booker T. Washington had dined with President Theodore Roosevelt that the White House was "so saturated with the odor of the nigger that the rats have taken refuge in the stable."
  14. "The Authentic Voice". Time. March 26, 1956.
  15. https://cdn.loc.gov/service/rbc/lcrbmrp/t2609/t2609.pdf
  16. James K. Vardaman, Jr.: Governor (Board of Governors): 1946 - 1958
  17. "J. K. Vardaman, Ex-senator, Dies. Mississippian Succumbs to Long Illness in a Birmingham Hospital. Was a governor. One of Six Senators Who Voted Against War With Germany. Lawyer and Editor". New York Times. June 26, 1930. Retrieved March 23, 2010. James Kimball Vardaman, former Governor of Mississippi and a United States Senator from that State, familiarly known to thousands as 'the White Chief,' died at a hospital here today after a lengthy illness. His age was 68.
  18. "University of Mississippi to post sign recognizing slave labor on campus". CBS News . July 6, 2017. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  19. Vardaman Hall Name Change Recommended By Committee For Contextualization hottytoddy.com March 7, 2017 Retrieved July 9, 2017

Further reading

Political offices
Preceded by
Andrew H. Longino
Governor of Mississippi
Succeeded by
Edmond Noel
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Le Roy Percy
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Mississippi
Served alongside: John Sharp Williams
Succeeded by
Pat Harrison