U.S. Democratic Senator from the State of Mississippi: John C. Stennis Interview
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Published on May 23, 2012
John Cornelius Stennis (August 3, 1901 -- April 23, 1995) was a U.S. Senator from the state of Mississippi. He was a Democrat who served in the Senate for over 41 years, becoming its most senior member by his retirement.
Upon the death of Senator Theodore Bilbo in 1947, Stennis won the special election to fill the vacancy, winning the seat from a field of five candidates (including two sitting Congressmen: John E. Rankin and William M. Colmer). He remained in the Senate until 1989. From 1947 to 1978, he served alongside Eastland; thus Stennis spent 31 years as Mississippi's junior Senator, even though he had more seniority than most of his other colleagues. He and Eastland were at the time the longest serving Senate duo in American history, later broken by the South Carolina duo of Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings. He later developed a good relationship with Eastland's successor, Republican Thad Cochran.
Stennis wrote the first Senate ethics code, and was the first chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee.
In 1973, Stennis was almost fatally wounded by two gunshots after being mugged outside his Washington home. In October 1973, during the Watergate scandal, the Nixon administration proposed the Stennis compromise, wherein the hard-of-hearing Stennis would listen to the contested Oval Office tapes and report on their contents, but this plan went nowhere. Time Magazine ran a picture of John Stennis that read :"Technical Assistance Needed." The picture had his hand cupped around his ear.
Stennis lost his left leg to cancer in 1984.
He was unanimously selected President pro tempore of the Senate during the 100th Congress (1987--1989). During his Senate career he chaired, at various times, the Select Committee on Standards and Conduct, and the Armed Services, and Appropriations committees. Because of his work with the Armed Services committee (1969--1980) he became known as the "Father of America's Modern Navy", and he was subsequently honored by having a supercarrier, USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) named after him. He is one of only two members of Congress to be so honored, the other being former Georgia Democrat Carl Vinson.
Stennis was a supporter of racial segregation. In the 1950s and 1960s he vigorously opposed the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and he signed the Southern Manifesto of 1956, supporting filibuster tactics to block or delay passage in all cases.
Earlier, as a prosecutor, he sought the conviction and execution of three share croppers whose murder confessions had been extracted by torture, including flogging. The convictions were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case of Brown v. Mississippi (1936) that banned the use of evidence obtained by torture. The transcript of the trial indicates Stennis was fully aware that the suspects had been tortured.
As time went on, Stennis became more supportive of civil rights legislation. He supported the 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act, though he voted against establishing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a federal holiday. Stennis campaigned (along with Governor Bill Allain) for Mike Espy in 1986 during Espy's successful bid to become the first black Congressman from the state since the end of Reconstruction.
Stennis was the first Democrat to publicly criticize Joseph McCarthy on the Senate floor during the Red Scare. This stood in marked contrast to Eastland, who was a staunch supporter of McCarthy.
Stennis opposed President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. On October 23, 1987, Stennis voted with six Republicans and all but two Democrats to provide the 42-to-58 refusal to confirm the Bork nomination.
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