The John C. Stennis Collection documents the MS Democrat's 42-year career in the United States Senate, as well as his pre-Senate years as a Mississippi legislator, a District Attorney, and a Circuit Judge. It contains 2500 cubic feet of documents, photographs, audiovisual materials, oral histories, and memorabilia that provide rich details of world, American, and Mississippi history during the latter half of the twentieth century.
Born August 3, 1901, John Cornelius Stennis emerged from the small east central Mississippi town of DeKalb in Kemper County to become a giant in the United States Senate. Educated at Mississippi State University (B. S. degree in 1923) and the University of Virginia (law degree in 1928), Stennis began his long career of public service when he was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1928. In 1929 he married Coy Hines of New Albany, Mississippi, and set up a law practice in his hometown of DeKalb. Stennis and Miss Coy, as he always called her, eventually had two children, a daughter named Margaret Jane and a son named John Hampton. From 1932-1937 he served as prosecuting attorney in Mississippi's sixteenth judicial district; from 1937-1947 he was a circuit judge in that same district.
In 1947, the state of Mississippi held a special election to fill the unexpired term of U. S. Senator Theodore G. Bilbo who had died of cancer. Under the rules of the special election, there would be no runoff; the candidate with the highest number of votes would be declared the winner. John C. Stennis pondered the idea of seeking the senate seat, and after many hours of discussing the possibility with his close friend J. P. Coleman of Ackerman (a future governor of Mississippi and Federal judge), Stennis announced his candidacy. The race would be tough; the field of five candidates included two sitting U. S. Congressmen from Mississippi, John Rankin and William Colmer. Stennis avoided the volatile race issue that Bilbo had exploited for many years. Instead of engaging in divisive rhetoric, Stennis came up with a simple message that rural Mississippi could understand: "I want to plow a straight furrow right down to the end of the row. This is my political religion, and I have lived by it too long to abandon it now. I base my appeal to you on this simple creed, and with it I shall rise or fall." The state's voters responded, and Stennis won the election, edging out Colmer, his closest competitor, by less than 7,000 votes. No future candidate opposing John Stennis would do as well.
Sworn in on November 17, 1947, Senator Stennis immediately went to work for his constituents; his first legislative initiative was designed to promote the paving of rural roads to get the farmers in his state "out of the mud." In his office sat a vacant chair reserved for the people of Mississippi, a constant reminder to Stennis of how he got to the Senate and where his priorities must be. Mississippi voters would reward Stennis's dedication by keeping him in the Senate until early 1989; he did not seek reelection in 1988 due to failing health. His beloved Miss Coy had passed away in 1983. In 1973 Stennis had barely survived a mugging near his Washington home when he suffered a severe bullet wound. In 1984 he had lost his left leg to cancer. Yet his remarkable physical condition, the result of daily workouts and long hours of hard work, helped him keep going. When he left the Senate for the last time he was 87 years old. After leaving Washington, Stennis came to his alma mater, Mississippi State University, and lectured occasionally to political science classes before entering a nursing home in Jackson, Mississippi. There he died on April 23, 1995, at the age of 93.
Stennis left a legacy of strong, firm, and fair-minded leadership in the Senate. He had close friends on both sides of the aisle and was unfailingly generous in his working relationships with his colleagues. He served on numerous committees and was the first chair of the Standards and Conduct Committee, an internal oversight committee that addressed alleged wrongful activity among senators. He made his most lasting marks, however, as a member of the Appropriations Committee and the Armed Services Committee. He worked unceasingly to help build up the economy of Mississippi, and he used his membership in the Appropriations Committee to good effect. Much industry and public works-type projects were developed in the state during his tenure in office.
Stennis served as chair of Armed Services and chaired the committee's powerful Preparedness Subcommittee during the Vietnam War era. Stennis' most profound legacy was no doubt his leadership in military affairs. A strong supporter of men and women in the ranks, Stennis tried to give presidents and the Pentagon a wide berth in the execution of war and the development of weapons systems. Nevertheless, he never became a rubberstamp Senator in these areas, and he constantly spoke out against failed policies and wasteful spending. The Vietnam experience led him to become a strong advocate of a war power bill to restrict the executive branch's leeway in leading the country into war. In 1973, a War Powers Act was passed, surviving a veto by President Richard Nixon. Stennis always believed that his and Georgia Senator Richard Russell's (Russell chaired Armed Services prior to Stennis's tenure in that post) opposition to President Lyndon Johnson's war policy was a key factor in Johnson's decision not to seek reelection in 1968.
Stennis's stand against Johnson, an old friend from the President's Senate years, demonstrated his firm sense of duty as a senator. He displayed that quality early in his career when he became the first Democrat to stand on the floor of the Senate and denounce Senator Joseph McCarthy. Stennis served on the 1954 committee that looked into McCarthy's conduct, and Stennis did not like what he saw. McCarthy's communist witch- hunts had, according to Stennis, led the Wisconsin Republican to pour "slush and slime" on the Senate as an institution. To ignore McCarthy's actions, said Stennis, would mean that "something big and fine has gone out of this chamber, and something of a wrong character, something representing a wrong course, a wrong approach will have entered. . . ." The Senate later censured McCarthy, whose career quickly went into a tailspin from which he never recovered. Stennis would continue to be recognized as the conscience of the Senate, a Senator whose integrity would never be called into question during his long career.
The most pressing social issue during Stennis's Senate career was civil rights. By southern standards he was moderate on the issue, and he did not hesitate to condemn violent acts by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups. Yet politically he could not afford to take a strong stand in favor of civil rights for African-Americans. To have done so, especially during the turbulent 1960s, might well have cost him his Senate seat. He never resorted to race baiting, but he did calmly point out civil rights shortcomings in other parts of the country. Stennis and liberal Connecticut Democrat Abraham Ribicoff teamed up in the 1970s to push through legislation that required even-handed handling of cases around the country involving cutting Federal funding to segregated school districts. In ensuing years, John Stennis reflected changes in the south, when he began supporting civil rights legislation. Over the years, Stennis also became a strong advocate of more women in government, no doubt influenced by his admiration for a long time colleague, Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. His changing attitudes in these areas did not mean he had abandoned his conservatism, only that he was flexible enough to alter his course when he believed change was right and necessary.
Frequently applauded and honored for his many years of public service, Stennis reached a symbolic pinnacle of recognition when his Senate colleagues of the 100th Congress unanimously elected him President pro tempore of the United States. He was further honored upon his retirement with a tribute dinner that had the theme "Celebration of a Legend." On the Mississippi State University campus and in other parts of Mississippi are many buildings and programs that bear the Stennis name, a tribute to his dedication to the home folks. The most prominent, lasting memorials on campus are the John C. Stennis Institute of Government, the John C. Stennis Center for Public Service, and the John C. Stennis Collection housed in the Congressional and Political Research Center of Mississippi State University Libraries. Beyond Mississippi, the U. S. S. John C. Stennis aircraft carrier carries the Stennis name to all corners of the globe. The Stennis legacy continues.