History of the First District

Joe Rutherford - Daily Journal - History of the 1st District - The 1st Congressional District dates from 1846, when the Legislature required election by district rather than statewide, complying with a federal law passed in 1842. Mississippi was among four states that ignored the law and continued statewide congressional elections for a time after 1842.

Jacob Thompson, who was a Pontotoc resident, is generally recognized as the first 1st District congressman, even though he was elected statewide. Two of the 12 people who so far have served from the 1st District have been Republicans; the rest have been Democrats, except Benjamin Nabers, a Unionist, who served from 1851 to 1853.

Since Feb. 23, 1870, with the state’s readmission to the Union, the 1st District has been continuously a distinct electoral geographic entity, but its size, shape and population have changed with laws governing apportionment, as well as population shifts among states and in-state, loss of House seats statewide, racial equity, voting rights and political influences shaping its configuration. As late as the early 1970s, for example, the district extended to the Mississippi River across a deep swath of the northern counties. That changed with creation by federal decree of a significantly majority-black district stretching from the Jackson area northward to Tunica County.

The district grew in size and population after the 2000 Census because Mississippi’s House delegation dropped from five to four districts. The delegation peaked at eight members from the early 1900s to 1933.

The 1st District seat was empty from Mississippi’s secession in 1861 to its readmission to the Union in 1870, after the Civil War and Reconstruction under a military governor.

So far, 12 different people have served from the 1st District since its creation in 1846, with one man, L.Q.C. Lamar, serving terms before and after the Civil War. Lamar, who lived in and is buried in Oxford, is among the handful of most famous and influential Mississippians. He served in the House 1857 to 1861, when Mississippi seceded and joined the Confederate States of America, and again from 1873 to 1877, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Lamar later was President Grover Cleveland’s secretary of the Interior, then he was named associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He is the only Mississippian to have served on the highest court. Lamar may be best known generally for his eulogy for Massachusetts Republican Sen. Charles Sumner, an abolitionist and architect of Reconstruction policies under which the South was governed after the Civil War. Lamar, who was a freshman representative when Sumner died in 1874, struck what has been praised as a conciliatory tone, placing a rhetorical balm on some of the lingering bitterness between the regions. He was included in John F. Kennedy’s noted book, “Profiles in Courage.”

Wiseman cited among other influential 1st District representatives:

John Allen, a Tupelo Democrat whose oratorical skills helped build broad coalitions from 1885 to 1901, when he left the House and unsuccessfully sought a U.S. Senate seat. It was Allen – best known for the campaign name “Private John Allen” – who helped bring Tupelo to national note as a new Southern city through a speech seeking a federal fish hatchery that now bears his name. He later served as commissioner of the St. Louis World Exposition. It was a world’s fair in 1904 marking the beginning of the modern era. Payne said Allen was allied "with what historians call the 'Redeemers,' those who held power before the war but allied themselves with northern industrialists to gain power that had been taken from them during the Civil War. He supported the Mississippi Levee system and other internal improvements. But his talk of voting for a 'private' was an effort to tap into the populist vote, not a genuine effort to improve the lives of ordinary people."

John Rankin, also a Democrat from Tupelo, was elected in 1920 and served until 1953. He was a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, except on race issues, and he was influential in establishing the Tennessee Valley Authority and Rural Electrification Administration, and won authorization with legislation leading eventually to construction of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. Payne, who notes she has indirect family connections to Rankin, said, "He co-sponsored the bill to create the TVA – although some ecologists think that was a disastrous decision. He supported the Rural Electrification Act and the G.I. Bill of Rights. At the same time, he was a vicious racist. He blamed battle defeats during World War II on the cowardice of black soldiers. His assertion flew in the face of the documented bravery of, for example, the Tuskegee Flyers. He also was an aggressive member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and refused to investigate the KKK, saying it was an "old American institution." In fact, it was not; it was relatively new.

Jamie L. Whitten, a Democrat from Charleston, became the 1st District’s congressman in 1973. Whitten had served the 2nd District since 1941, but redistricting moved him into the 1st District. He was chairman of the Agriculture Committee, the Appropriations Committee and served in the House longer than any other member, retiring in 1995. "I tell you," Wiseman said, "when Jamie Whitten was chairman of House Appropriations and John Stennis was chairman of Senate Appropriations, that was a powerful combination." Wiseman said the two Appropriations chairmanships were the equivalent of much larger whole states' delegations and were an equalizer despite Mississippi’s diminishing numerical representation in the House. Payne sees Whitten as a white Southern politician who changed with the times. "He saw crucial transitions," she said. "Beginning as an arch conservative on race, he voted against all the civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s. Like George Wallace – and whether for purely political or heartfelt reasons, we do not know – he later apologized for his segregationist views. It is clear, however, that he clashed with the values of the rising Republican Party in Mississippi." Payne said she believes the "crucible of Mississippi politics is about race, hierarchy and class. Whitten is the best example of someone who dealt with these issues over a lifetime of service. The next representative should take lessons from him."

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