James Oliver Eastland (November 28, 1904 – February 19, 1986) was an American politician from Mississippi who served in the United States Senate as a Democrat in 1941; and again from 1943 until his resignation December 27, 1978. From 1947 to 1978, he served alongside John Stennis, also a Democrat.
At the time, Eastland and Stennis were the longest-serving Senate duo in American history, though their record was subsequently surpassed by Strom Thurmond and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, who served together for thirty-six years. Eastland was also the most senior member of the Senate at the time of his retirement in 1978.
He compiled a conservative record in support of the Conservative coalition. A wealthy plantation owner, Eastland was best known nationally as a symbol of Southern support of racial segregation in most of his years in the Senate.
Eastland was born in Doddsville, in the Mississippi Delta, the son of Woods Caperton Eastland, a lawyer and cotton planter, and Alma Teresa (Austin) Eastland. In 1905 he moved with his parents to Forest, where he attended the segregated public schools. Woods Eastland was active in politics and served as a district attorney.
Eastland attended the University of Mississippi (1922-1924), Vanderbilt University (1925-1926), and the University of Alabama (1926-1927) before studying law with his father and attaining admission to the bar. A lawyer in rural Mississippi, he served one term in the state House of Representatives from 1928 to 1932.
In the 1930s, Eastland took over his family’s Sunflower County plantation, and eventually expanded it to nearly 6,000 acres (24 km2). Even after entering politics, he considered himself first and foremost a cotton planter. While agriculture was mechanizing, he still had many African-American laborers on the plantation, many working as sharecroppers.
Eastland was first appointed to the Senate in 1941 by Democratic Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr., following the death of Senator Pat Harrison. Johnson first offered the appointment to Eastland’s father, who declined and suggested his son. Johnson appointed James Eastland on the condition that he not run in the special election for the seat later in the year. Eastland kept his word and the election was won by 2nd District Congressman Wall Doxey.
In 1942, Eastland was one of three candidates who challenged Doxey for a full term. Doxey had the support of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mississippi’s senior U.S. Senator, Theodore G. Bilbo, but Eastland defeated him in the Democratic primary.
In those days, winning the Democratic nomination was tantamount to election in Mississippi. It was a one-party state dominated by white Democrats since disfranchisement of African Americans with passage of the 1890 state constitution, which used poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses to exclude them from the political system. Eastland returned to the Senate on January 3, 1943.
FDR and Eastland developed a working relationship that enabled Eastland to oppose New Deal programs unpopular in Mississippi while he supported FDR’s agenda on many other issues. Eastland was effective in developing this type of arrangement with presidents of both parties during his long tenure in the Senate.
As a result he gained major federal investment in the state, such as infrastructure construction including the Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway, and federal relief after disasters such as Hurricane Camille.
In 1956, Eastland was appointed as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Under the Senate’s seniority rules, he was next in line for the chairmanship and there was no significant effort to deny him the post, which he held until his retirement.
He was re-elected five times, facing substantive GOP opposition only twice and not until the late 20th century, which party politics were shifting after passage of civil rights legislation that enforced constitutional rights for minorities. In 1966, freshman congressman Prentiss Walker, the first Republican to represent Mississippi at the federal level since Reconstruction and the late 19th-century disfranchisement of blacks, ran against him.
This was one of the early campaigns by the Republican Party as it worked to attract white conservatives in the South to its ranks. Following leadership by national Democrats, who supported civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, most African Americans in the South began to vote with the Democratic Party on national candidates.
Former Republican Party state chairman Wirt Yerger had considered running against Eastland, but bowed out after Walker announced his candidacy. Walker ran well to Eastland’s right, accusing him of not having done enough to keep integration-friendly judges from being confirmed by the Senate.
As is often the case when a one-term representative runs against a popular incumbent senator or governor, Walker was soundly defeated. Years later, Yerger said that Walker’s decision to relinquish his House seat after one term for the vagaries of a Senate race against Eastland was “very devastating” to the growth of the Mississippi GOP.
In 1972, Eastland was reelected with 58 percent of the vote in his closest contest ever. His Republican opponent, Gil Carmichael, an automobile dealer from Meridian, was likely aided by President Richard Nixon’s landslide reelection in 49 states, including 78 percent of Mississippi’s popular vote.
However, Nixon worked “under the table” to support Eastland, who was a long-time personal friend. Nixon and other Republicans provided little support for Carmichael to avoid alienating conservative Southern Democrats.
The GOP did work to elect two House candidates, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, who later were elected and became influential U.S. senators from the state. Recognizing that Nixon would handily carry Mississippi, Eastland did not endorse the national Democratic candidate, George McGovern of South Dakota, who was considered a liberal.
Four years later, Eastland supported the candidacy of fellow Southern Democrat Jimmy Carter of Georgia, rather than Nixon’s successor, President Gerald R. Ford, Jr. Eastland’s former press secretary, Larry Speakes, a Mississippi native, served as a press spokesman for Gerald Ford and U.S. Senator Robert J. Dole in the latter’s vice-presidential campaign on the Ford ticket.
During his last Senate term, Eastland served as President pro tempore of the Senate, as he was the longest-serving Democrat in the Senate.
In his last years in the Senate, Eastland was recognized by most Senators as one who knew how to wield the legislative powers he had accumulated.
Many Senators, including liberals who opposed many of his conservative positions, acknowledged the fairness with which he chaired the Judiciary Committee, sharing staff and authority that chairmen of other committees jealously held for themselves.
He maintained personal ties with stalwart liberal Democrats such as Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and Phil Hart, even though they disagreed on many issues. Following Johnson’s retirement from the White House, Eastland frequently visited Johnson at his Texas ranch.
Eastland died on February 19, 1986. The law library at Ole Miss was named after Eastland until 2012. This caused some controversy in Mississippi given Eastland’s earlier racist positions, but the University benefited financially from Eastland’s many friends and supporters, as it has done from other political figures of Eastland’s era.