John C. Stennis

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John C. Stennis
United States Senator
from Mississippi
In office
November 5, 1947 – January 3, 1989
Preceded by Theodore Bilbo
Succeeded by Trent Lott
President pro tempore of the United States Senate
In office
January 3, 1987 – January 3, 1989
Deputy George J. Mitchell
Preceded by Strom Thurmond
Succeeded by Robert Byrd
Chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services
In office
January 3, 1969 – January 3, 1981
Preceded by Richard Russell
Succeeded by John Tower
Personal details
Born John Cornelius Stennis
(1901-08-03)August 3, 1901
Kemper County, Mississippi
Died April 23, 1995(1995-04-23) (aged 93)
Jackson, Mississippi
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Coy Hines
Children John Hampton Stennis
Margaret Jane Stennis Womble
Alma mater Mississippi A&M University
University of Virginia
Profession Politician, Lawyer
Religion Presbyterian
Stennis (left) visited the Marshall Space Flight Center in mid-November 1967, where he was greeted at the Redstone Airfield by Center Director Dr. Wernher von Braun.

John Cornelius Stennis (August 3, 1901 – April 23, 1995) was a U.S. Senator from the state of Mississippi. He was a Democrat who served in the Senate for over 41 years, becoming its most senior member for his last eight years. He retired from the Senate in 1989.

Early life[edit]

Born in Kemper County, Mississippi, Stennis received a bachelor's degree from Mississippi State University in Starkville (then Mississippi A&M) in 1923.[1] In 1928, Stennis obtained a law degree from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, where he was a member of ΦΒΚ and ΑΧΡ.[2] While in law school, he won a seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives, in which he served until 1932. Stennis was a prosecutor from 1932 to 1937 and a circuit judge from 1937 to 1947, both for Mississippi's Sixteenth Judicial District.

Stennis married Coy Hines, and together, they had two children, John Hampton and Margaret Jane. His son, John Hampton Stennis (1935–2013),[3] an attorney in Jackson, Mississippi, ran unsuccessfully in 1978 for the United States House of Representatives, defeated by the Republican Jon C. Hinson, then the aide to U.S. Representative Thad Cochran.

U.S. Senator[edit]

Upon the death of Senator Theodore Bilbo in 1947, Stennis won the special election to fill the vacancy, winning the seat from a field of five candidates (including two sitting Congressmen, John E. Rankin and William M. Colmer). He won the seat in his own right in 1952, and was reelected five times. From 1947 to 1978, he served alongside James Eastland; thus Stennis spent 31 years as Mississippi's junior Senator, even though he had more seniority than most of his other colleagues. He and Eastland were at the time the longest serving Senate duo in American history, later broken by the South Carolina duo of Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings. He later developed a good relationship with Eastland's successor, Republican Thad Cochran.

Stennis wrote the first Senate ethics code, and was the first chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee. In August 1965, Senator Stennis, who was known as "Mr. Integrity", protested the Johnson administration's emergency supplemental appropriation request for the Vietnam war and the lack of information about the future costs of the conflict.[4]

In 1973, Stennis was almost fatally wounded by two gunshots after being mugged outside his Washington home by two teenagers.[5] In October 1973, during the Watergate scandal, the Nixon administration proposed the Stennis compromise, wherein the hard-of-hearing Stennis would listen to the contested Oval Office tapes and report on their contents, but this plan went nowhere. Time magazine ran a picture of John Stennis that read: "Technical Assistance Needed." The picture had his hand cupped around his ear.

Stennis lost his left leg to cancer in 1984[6] and subsequently used a wheelchair.

Stennis was unanimously selected President pro tempore of the Senate during the 100th Congress (1987–1989). During his Senate career he chaired, at various times, the Select Committee on Standards and Conduct, and the Armed Services, and Appropriations Committees. Because of his work with the Armed Services Committee (1969–1980) he became known as the "Father of America's modern navy", and he was subsequently honored by having a supercarrier, USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) named after him. He is one of only two members of Congress to be so honored, the other being former Georgia Democrat Carl Vinson.

Civil rights record[edit]

Originally, Stennis was an ardent supporter of racial segregation, like most Mississippi politicians. In the 1950s and 1960s he vigorously opposed the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and he signed the Southern Manifesto of 1956, supporting filibuster tactics to block or delay passage in all cases.

Earlier, as a prosecutor, he sought the conviction and execution of three sharecroppers whose murder confessions had been extracted by torture, including flogging.[7] The convictions were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case of Brown v. Mississippi (1936) that banned the use of evidence obtained by torture. The transcript of the trial indicated Stennis was fully aware that the suspects had been tortured.

As time went on, Stennis became more supportive of civil rights legislation. He supported the 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act,[8] though he voted against establishing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a federal holiday.[9] Stennis campaigned (along with Governor Bill Allain) for Mike Espy in 1986 during Espy's successful bid to become the first black Congressman from the state since the end of Reconstruction.

Joseph McCarthy[edit]

Stennis was the first Democrat to publicly criticize Joseph McCarthy on the Senate floor during the Red Scare. This stood in marked contrast to Eastland, who was a staunch supporter of McCarthy.

Opposition to Bork[edit]

Stennis opposed President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. On October 23, 1987, Stennis voted with six Republicans and all but two Democrats to provide the 42-to-58 refusal to confirm the Bork nomination.[10]

Retirement[edit]

In 1982, his last election, Stennis easily defeated Republican Haley Barbour in a largely Democratic year.

Declining to run for re-election in 1988, Stennis retired from the Senate in 1989, having never lost an election in 60 years as an elected official. He took a teaching post at Mississippi State University, his alma mater, which he held until his death in Jackson, Mississippi, at the age of 93.

At the time of Stennis' retirement, his continuous tenure of 41 years and 2 months in the Senate was second only to that of Carl Hayden. (It has since been surpassed by Robert Byrd, Strom Thurmond, Ted Kennedy, and Daniel Inouye, leaving Stennis sixth).

John Stennis is buried at Pinecrest Cemetery in Kemper County.

Naming honors[edit]

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]

United States Senate
Preceded by
Theodore Bilbo
U.S. Senator (Class 1) from Mississippi
November 5, 1947 – January 3, 1989
Served alongside: James Eastland, Thad Cochran
Succeeded by
Trent Lott
Political offices
Preceded by
Richard B. Russell, Jr.
Georgia
Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee
1969–1981
Succeeded by
John Tower
Texas
Preceded by
Strom Thurmond
South Carolina
President pro tempore of the United States Senate
1987–1989
Succeeded by
Robert C. Byrd
West Virginia
Preceded by
Mark O. Hatfield
Oregon
Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee
1987–1989
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Warren G. Magnuson
Washington
Dean of the United States Senate
January 3, 1981 – January 3, 1989
Succeeded by
Strom Thurmond
South Carolina