Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Aaron Henry, April 2, 1974. Interview A-0107. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Politicians use racial code to appeal to white voters

Henry reflects on the role of race in Mississippi politics. James Eastland, the long-serving Democratic senator, thrives on pitting white racists against blacks, Henry believes. President Nixon relies so heavily on support from racist southern whites that he refused to aid a Republican candidate in his effort to unseat Eastland. Henry does not see much cause for hope that people like Eastland and Strom Thurmond will change their attitude.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Aaron Henry, April 2, 1974. Interview A-0107. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACK BASS:
How do you characterize race relations in Mississippi today?
AARON HENRY:
Well, I characterize them as being better than they were 20 years ago, but not nearly as good as they got to become.
JACK BASS:
If Charlie Sullivan had been elected governor, would the conflict between the two so-called Democratic parties in Mississippi be resolved?
AARON HENRY:
I think so. You see, during the time when Charlie was lieutenant governor when there were meetings of what you consider the loyalist Democratic party—and I'm damn proud to be called a loyalist. Of course the newspapers have to label us something to keep us straight, I guess. So, you know, we'll forgive you for that. But the fact that Charlie is one of the people that attended both sides' meetings, to try to be sure that he had identification with the leadership of both incidents. And I feel that Charlie had the confidence of many of us who are in leadership roles in the Democratic party in Mississippi. And certainly, in my person relationship with Charlie Sullivan I believe that. . . . And I found Charlie, now, to be a, you know, reasonable individual and I think we could have worked out the difficulties and gone forward. Now really. . . the big reason why we can't get that done now is really not because of Bill Waller. It's really because of Jim Eastland. You see, it's not to Jim Eastland's benefit to foster racial harmony in the state because Eastland has built his total political empire on discord among the races. And once he no longer has that to carry him forward, then there's no need to continue to rely on a man of Jim Eastland's persuasion. And Charlie Sullivan, or rather Bill Waller, happens to be the captive of the palace guard. James O. Eastland made Bill Waller governor and therefore it becomes not what Bill himself wants to do. I think Bill Waller the man, as I've known him, he too would like to work toward bringing the two groups together. But Bill Waller does not have the permission of his prima donna, the man who made him governor, to do that. Because to do that would work to the disadvantage of Senator Eastland.
JACK BASS:
Why would it be to Senator Eastland's disadvantage to bring the two groups together?
AARON HENRY:
Well, you see it would be to Senator Eastland's disadvantage because he has lived with the hate the black as a part of his total philosophical basis. He spoke many times about how he carried civil rights bills around in his back pockets for years. There's no way for Eastland to overcome his past image and become acceptable to blacks. Eastland can forget it. And if anybody ran against Eastland of any prominence, they in all probability would pick up a great majority of the black vote. And if he had any strength in the white community, Eastland would no longer be senator. You know, Gil Carmichael damn near got in last time. If Nixon had put his arm around Gil Carmichael once Eastland would have been gone. But Nixon, the Republican president. Gil Carmichael, a Republican running for the senate in Mississippi. Yet Nixon threw his support to James Eastland. And, you know, in that regard I consider both of them the same kind of racist.
JACK BASS:
Why couldn't Eastland change the same way that you've said some of these other people have come around the corner, turned the corner?
AARON HENRY:
Why? I don't know. But I just know he hasn't.
JACK BASS:
I'm not questioning whether he has. I'm asking whether he could.
AARON HENRY:
I doubt if he can. I think that his age prohibits it. Eastland is 69 or something like that. There ain't no way in the world you're going to change a man that old.
JACK BASS:
How about Strom Thurmed?
AARON HENRY:
I don't know really whether Strom changed or not. I think Strom began to deal in a political permissive kind of activity. I think Strom was a Republican of convenience and moved, you know, in that direction. Certainly there are a couple of strong civil rights people who now have gravitated toward Strom Thurmed. However I think it was a dishonest move, you know, to begin with. I don't think that Eastland, in the plantation tsar philosophy that he has could pull a Strom Thurmed and still be held up by his peers in the plantation world that so pervades the delta in Mississippi. I just think that Eastland's a lost cause.
JACK BASS:
Do you think Eastland is capable or incapable of sitting down at a table with you and discussing across the board political issues that need to be resolved?
AARON HENRY:
Well, if you're speaking about discussing them man to man, no. He's incapable of that. Eastland still feels that somehow God endowed him twith something that he didn't give black men.
JACK BASS:
Is that the big problem in so far as his resolving the situation?
AARON HENRY:
I think it is.