Big Jim Eastland

Senator James O. Eastland wrote me a letter congratulating me on my high school graduation. It was not mentioned in biographer J. Lee Annis’s book Big Jim Eastland: The Godfather of Mississippi. The letter fit with the picture painted by the author of a complicated politician.  My familiarity of the time and the man made me eager to read the book in a Net Galley ARC from University Press of Mississippi. My letter, one of a multitude sent to graduates Senator Eastland did not know, but hoped to add to his voter base, was typical of his outreach to the common people of Mississippi. I was about as common as they came.

Democratic Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr. appointed James Eastland, a member of Mississippi’s Delta planter class, to the Senate in 1941. He ran and won the seat outright in 1942 and served until his retirement in 1978. For most of his career, he was a staunch segregationist even as he began to realize he was fighting a losing battle. Paradoxically, he was friends with the Kennedys and worked with them on some legislation that both of them thought important and became friends in the latter part of his life with some of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Because of his senior committee positions and his personality, he wielded much influence in the Senate which he often used to improve the lives of those common people back home.

When I read nonfiction, especially biography, I look first for accurate information.  The portrayal of the senator was consistent with my memories. I sensed the depth of scholarly and personal research as I read, verified when my Kindle had 26% of the book left at the beginning of the bibliography.

I also want a good story with a protagonist who grows and changes. The senator had great loyalty to those who had helped him achieve his place in life and to those whom he mentored. He worked on legislation with those with whom he had fundamental differences. He moved a long way from his strict segregation construction even though he never became free of bias. For readers who love well-documented biography couched in a crucial historical time, Big Jim Eastland meets the criteria.