IN TWO TERMS as governor of Mississippi, followed by two terms in the U.S. Senate, Theodore Gilmore Bilbo emerged as a national symbol of unapologetic southern white supremacy. He was vilified unmercifully in the pages of progressive publications and by leftist folksingers like Pete Seeger. Across the white south, however, he was hailed as a hero. Ironically, apart from his racial attitudes, Bilbo was very much a progressive populist. Upon taking political control of the Mississippi statehouse in 1916, he embarked on a campaign to modernize the state's road system and pressed the University of Mississippi to admit more poor white students, even threatening at one point to relocate the school unless it complied—a move that got him burned in effigy.

Theodore Bilbo, though a ...

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