Wirt Yerger

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Wirt Adams Yerger, Jr.
State Chairman of the
Mississippi Republican Party
In office
1956–1966
Preceded by First modern chairman
Succeeded by Clarke Reed
Personal details
Born June 1930
Jackson, Hinds County, Mississippi, USA
Spouse(s) Mary Yerger
Children

Three children, including:

Wirt Yerger, III
Parents Wirt, Sr., and Rivers Applewhite Yerger
Residence Jackson, Mississippi
Alma mater Missing
Occupation Insurance agent

Wirt Adams Yerger, Jr. (born June 1930),[1] is a retired businessman from Jackson, Mississippi, who is the founding 20th century state chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party, a position that he filled from 1956 to 1966.

Background[edit]

Yerger is a son of Wirt Yerger, Sr. (1901-1974) and Rivers Applewhite Yerger (1904-1991), she a native of Columbia in Marion County in southwestern Mississippi. The couple is interred at Greenwood Cemetery in the capital city of Jackson, as are other family members.[2]

Yerger's younger brother, William Swan Yerger (born 1932), is a retired Hinds County circuit court judge who held his office from 1997 to 2010.[3] Swan Yerger, as he is known, ran unsuccessfully as a Republican nominee at the age of thirty-one for the Mississippi House of Representatives in 1963 against Democrat William I. S. "Billy" Thompson, the son of Jackson Mayor Allen C. Thompson. At the time, Swan Yerger was a staunch critic of unpledged electors, which had carried Mississippi in the 1960 presidential election.[4]

Yerger is a former insurance agent with the firm Ross & Yerger (founded 1860) in Jackson. He is affiliated with Rotary International, the Chamber of Commerce, and the YMCA. One of the founders of the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, he also operates the Wirt A. Yerger Jr. Foundation, Inc. He and his wife, Mary, have three children, one of whom is the businessman Wirt, III (born May 1957).[5]

Political life[edit]

Winning the chairmanship by one vote[edit]

Yerger led a younger and more vigorous group of conservative entrepreneurs, businesspeople, and lawyers, some having previously been part of the Young Republicans organization, and most the product of increasing urbanization of a still heavily rural-oriented state. At the age of twenty-six, he was named in Jackson as the party's first chairman by the margin of his one vote, his own. Yerger's faction defeated a motion to include segregation in the first party platform,[6] but many of the early Mississippi Republicans, like their Democratic counterparts, were segregationists. In 1957 and 1958, Yerger was placed on the defensive in Mississippi following the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Years later, Yerger said that he and his wife were harassed by segregationists, the kind of treatment also received by civil rights activists, because he was viewed as a threat to "white rule" as the chairman of the party of the president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who intervened in Little Rock. In 1960, the Mississippi GOP declared segregation a "local matter that could best be handled by individual states" and attempted to focus on other matters, such as reapportionment of legislative bodies and local-option liquor elections to replace statewide prohibition, which ended in Mississippi in 1966.[7]

Replacing the Black and Tans[edit]

Yerger's conservatives, who stressed States' rights, replaced the former Black and Tan contingent, which had governed the state party from Washington, D.C., with the African-American lawyer Perry Wilbon Howard as the national committeeman and the past dispenser of the limited federal patronage in the state.[8] At the 1952 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Howard led an all-black delegation pledged not to Eisenhower, but U.S. Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio,[9] a favorite of the conservative forces but known for his opposition to segregation, in Taft's words: "No segregationist belongs on a Republican ticket or even in the party".[10]

In addition to the Yerger and Howard factions, there were two other smaller groups contending for intraparty power, the Lily-White Movement, led by George L. Sheldon, a former governor of Nebraska, who had run for governor of Mississippi in 1947 and polled only 2.5 percent of the vote, and the "Democrats for Eisenhower" under E. O. Spencer. Some media had incorrectly identified Yerger as the head of the Lily Whites who had ousted the Black and Tans.[6]

George Sheldon's son, Anson Hoisington Sheldon (born 1905 in Nebraska), a resident of Washington County, was a member of the Mississippi Republican State Executive Committee from 1944 to 1967, the state chairman from 1948 to 1952, the vice-chairman from 1952 to 1967, and a delegate to the Republican National Conventions of 1956 and 1960.[11]

Despite Sheldon's earlier tenure as chairman, the Yerger faction considered him to be the first of the modern state Republican chairmen in Mississippi. Yerger said that his forces represented "the ultimate break with the old-line, racist Southern Democrats who didn't know whether they wanted to be liberal or conservative, but were vocally committed to keeping long-held, highly corrupted power."[12]

Building a party from scratch[edit]

Yerger held party positions beyond Mississippi. He was the chairman of the Mississippi delegation to the Republican National Conventions in 1956, 1960, and 1964. In 1960, Yerger was elected to a four-year term as chairman of the Southern Association of Republican State Chairmen.[13] In 1963, Yerger was named Mississippi chairman of the Draft Goldwater Committee under the national director, Peter O'Donnell, Jr., of Dallas.[14]

In 1965, Yerger lost a bid to become the national head of the organization of state Republican Party chairmen. His opposition to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a factor in his defeat for that position. Yerger had an altercation with liberal Republican Charles H. Percy, a defeated candidate for governor of Illinois in 1964 but a successful nominee in 1966 for the U.S. Senate. Percy accepted an invitation to speak before the Mississippi Council on Human Relations, a biracial group sponsored by the Southern Regional Council. Yerger branded the group a "Democratic front" and worked with Illinois Republicans to have Percy's speech scuttled.[8]

Yerger built his state party from scratch. He gained recognition for his chairmanship from the Eisenhower administration and thereafter supported the presidential candidacies of Richard M. Nixon and Barry M. Goldwater. In April 1961, the first Republican in Mississippi during the Yerger chairmanship was elected to a local office; Joe O. Sams, Jr., of Columbus became the county attorney of Lowndes County.[15]

The 1963 campaign[edit]

In 1963, the Mississippi party offered candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, both former Democrats. Rubel Phillips, a former member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission from Corinth and Jackson, and Stanford Morse, a member of the Mississippi State Senate from Gulfport, switched parties that year to challenge the elections of Paul B. Johnson, Jr. and Carroll Gartin for governor and lieutenant governors, respectively. Neither Phillips nor Morse reached 40 percent of the vote in the general election, but they paved the way for later Republican candidates who in time won the majority of statewide offices in Mississippi.[16]

In the Phillips-Morse campaign, Yerger was frequently ridiculed as "Squirt" Yerger by the Democratic State Chairman Bidwell Adam, a lawyer from Gulfport who served as lieutenant governor from 1928 to 1932 during the administration of staunch segregationist Theodore Bilbo. Adam and outgoing Governor Ross Barnett employed harsh anti-Republican rhetoric in their determined support for the Democrat Paul Johnson. The pair accused Phillips of being a Republican "turncoat" and then also questioned Phillips loyalty to the GOP. Johnson called his rival Phillips "a Stevenson liberal in Republican outer-garments."[17] Adam accused Phillips and Morse of onitting the word "Republican" from campaign literature in a ploy to confuse voters.[18]

An advertisement in the former Jackson Daily News, now part of The Clarion-Ledger, linked the Mississippi white Republicans with scalawags from the era of Reconstruction, a term Yerger found offensive, as he is a great-grandson of a Confederate Army officer.[10]

With Phillips' defeat, which Bidwell Adam termed an "electrocution", the Democrat telegraphed his state chairman counterpart Yerger to ask: "Will you please advise the date and place you will deliver the [GOP] funeral oration?"[19]

Vacating the chairmanship[edit]

Yerger stepped down as chairman with plans to challenge Democratic U.S. Senator James O. Eastland in the 1966 general election. In the Phillips-Johnson race, Yerger had accused Eastland of missing twenty-five of fifty-one roll call votes while Eastland was in Mississippi campaigning for Paul Johnson. Eastland said that his support of Johnson was essential to protect "white rule" in Mississippi. Democratic Chairman Bidwell Adam said that Eastland had a "patriotic duty" to support the state's Democratic nominees.[20] However, Prentiss Walker, the Republican U.S. representative from Mize, who represented Mississippi's 4th congressional district for a single term, instead ran against Eastland. Walker was the first Mississippi Republican since Reconstruction to win a U.S. House seat. Yerger therefore did not pursue an elected office but later said that Walker's senatorial candidacy was "very devastating" to the Mississippi GOP because the House seat returned to the Democrats and was held for decades by Gillespie V. Montgomery of Meridian, who carried bipartisan support. Walker also polled barely a quarter of the vote against Eastland.[20]

Yerger was succeeded as chairman by Clarke Reed, a businessman from Greenville, who also served ten years in the post.

The 1967 campaign[edit]

In 1967, Phillips mounted his second unsuccessful race for governor, this time against U.S. Representative John Bell Williams of Mississippi's 3rd congressional district, who had supported Goldwater in 1964 and been stripped in 1965 of House seniority for doing so. Sensing that he could not run to the "right" of Williams as he had tried to do with Johnson in 1963, Phillips shed his former segregationiost image and adopted a more moderate stance similar to that employed unsuccessfully by Williams' Democratic runoff rival, state Treasurer and later Governor William F. Winter.[21]

Later years[edit]

In 2009, the central committee of the Mississippi GOP recognized Yerger's lifetime achievements by naming him "chairman emeritus."[13] He is also chairman emeritus of Ross & Yerger Insurance.[5]

In January 2010, his active political career long behind him, Yerger published with Joseph L. Maxwell, III, a lengthy memoir with even a long title, A Courageous Cause: A Personal Story of Modern Republicanism's Birth from 1956 to 1966 in Mississippi.[12]

Yerger was chosen as a presidential elector for Mississippi in the 2012 presidential election but did not cast a vote and was hence replaced by an alternate.[22][23] All Mississippi electors voted for former Governor Mitt Romney, who carried Mississippi over the Democrat incumbent Barack H. Obama.

Four years later, Yerger served as a presidential elector for Mississippi in the 2016 presidential election, voting with the other Mississippi electors for Donald Trump, who handily carried Mississippi over the Democrat nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton.[24]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Wirt Yerger". Mylife.com. Retrieved August 17, 2017. 
  2. ^ "Rivers Applewhite Yerger". findagrave.com. Retrieved May 10, 2014. 
  3. ^ "Philip Thomas, Hinds Circuit Judge Swan Yerger announces retirement in 2010, June 1, 2009". Mississippi Litigation Review. Retrieved May 10, 2014. 
  4. ^ Billy Hathorn, "Challenging the Status Quo: Rubel Lex Phillips and the Mississippi Republican Party (1963-1967)", The Journal of Mississippi History XLVII, November 1985, No. 4, p. 254.
  5. ^ a b "Wirt Yerger, Jr". cfgreaterjackson.org. Retrieved May 10, 2014. 
  6. ^ a b "Yerger recounts history of state GOP in new book". onlinemadison.com. Retrieved May 10, 2014. 
  7. ^ "Challenging the Status Quo", p. 241.
  8. ^ a b "Ronni Mott, Yerger's Revisionist 'Lily White' History, May 12, 2009". Jackson Free Press. Retrieved May 10, 2014. 
  9. ^ "Murray N. Rothbard, "Swan Song of the Old Right"". mises.org. Retrieved May 10, 2014. 
  10. ^ a b "Challenging the Status Quo", p. 248.
  11. ^ "Sheldon, Anson Hoisington". The Political Graveyard. Retrieved May 12, 2014. 
  12. ^ a b A Courageous Cause. LifeStory Publishing, 509 pp.; ISBN 0975898876. Retrieved May 10, 2014. 
  13. ^ a b Jere Nash and Andy Taggert. Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2006. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006. pp. 41-42
  14. ^ "Thomas Byrne Edsall with Mary D. Edsall, "A Pivotal Year"". projects.ecfs.org. Retrieved May 10, 2014. 
  15. ^ "Challenging the Status Quo", p. 242.
  16. ^ "Challenging the Status Quo", pp. 242-243
  17. ^ "Challenging the Status Quo", p. 244.
  18. ^ "Challenging the Status Quo", p. 245.
  19. ^ "Challenging the Status Quo", pp. 256-257.
  20. ^ a b "Challenging the Status Quo", p. 256
  21. ^ "Challenging the Status Quo", p. 258-259.
  22. ^ [1][dead link]
  23. ^ [2][dead link]
  24. ^ [3][dead link]
Political offices
Preceded by
Considered the first modern state party chairman in Mississippi
State Chairman of the
Mississippi Republican Party
Wirt Adams Yerger, Jr.

1956-1966
Succeeded by
Clarke Reed