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‘Mississippi Governors’ interesting

By Joel McNeese

Aman of great dignity and a “baffling figure,” such is the description of the two former Mississippi governors I was most interested in reading about in Dr. David Sansing’s new book “Mississippi Governors.”

My interest in Dennis Murphree and James Kimble Vardaman is their obvious tie to my home county of Calhoun.

Gov. Vardaman, for whom the Sweet Potato Capital is named, is the “baffling figure.” Start with his appearance. He “strode across the political landscape in a white suit and high heel boots, with long flowing black hair, and a broad brimmed black hat.”

Vardaman, who was born in Texas but raised in Yalobusha and Carroll counties, served as governor from 1904-08. He exhibited many admirable qualities. He fought for the working man, against corporate rule and the political elite’s abuse of power. He advocated government regulation of large corporations and led the effort for child labor laws.

Throw in the fact that he was a newspaperman, working in both Winona and Greenwood at times, in fact founding the Greenwood Commonwealth, and you have to appreciate him.

During the 1911 senatorial campaign between Vardaman and Leroy Percy, class was a central theme with Vardaman’s supporters proudly accepting the moniker of “rednecks.”

“They were proud, they said, to be identified as poor white farmers and laborers whose neck’s were reddened by the sun’s hot rays as they were toiling  in the fields…In subsequent campaigns, Vardaman and Theodore Bilbo supporters wore red neckties representing their humble origins.”

But for all his positives, he is best known for his extreme views on race, which were abhorrent to put it mildly. He fought hard to deny educational opportunities to blacks and is quoted making many outrageous racial statements on the political stump. But at the same time, he allegedly intervened on at least nine occasions to prevent lynchings and on two occasions personally led National Guard troops to rescue blacks from lynch mobs.

“Baffling” is correct.

The more widely respected Dennis Herron Murphree served as governor from 1927-28 and 1943-44.

Two days after his inauguration, the Jackson Daily News wrote “No scandals will mar his administration…No bitter factional strife will be in evidence…No trickery, graft, or corruption…will cross the doors of the executive office.”

Murphree was born in Pittsboro in 1886 into a large extended family. It was reported at a 1914 Murphree family reunion at Oldtown Church, there were more than 700 family members present.

Among Murphree’s big accomplishments was the creation of the  “Know Mississippi Better Train” – a marketing effort that traveled the U.S., Canada and Mexico for more than 20 years encouraging people and industry to move to Mississippi.

To celebrate the success of the effort, Ole Miss band director R. Roy Coats wrote and dedicated “Mississippi, That Grand Old State of Mine” to Murphree.

Murphree, also a former newspaperman at the Calhoun Monitor, and his wife Clara Martin Murphree are interred in the Pittsboro Cemetery.

Vardaman and Murphree were far from the only interesting characters in this fascinating look at Mississippi gubernatorial history. I’m excited as I continue reading to get to Jim Buck Ross, William Winter, Cliff Finch, Kirk Fordice and Haley Barbour to name a few.

Joel McNeece is publisher of The Calhoun County Journal in Bruce. You may email him at joelmcneece@gmail.com.