An excerpt from David Sansing’s new book, “Mississippi Governors: Soldiers, Statesmen, Scholars, Scoundrels,” which will be released November 30.
Governor Lee Russell was born on November 16, 1875, in “a hamlet in the red clay hills” of Lafayette County, which is also known as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Joseph Blotner, a Faulkner scholar, writes that Lee Russell came from the “humbler walks of life” and became “the butt of cruelty from the sons of the well-to-do” when he enrolled at the University of Mississippi.
But Lee Russell was ambitious and enterprising. According to Don H. Doyle, in his history of Faulkner’s County, Lee Russell worked his way through law school “waiting on tables and doing odd jobs.”
Russell earned a law degree in 1903, settled in Oxford, and became a prosperous and prominent member of Colonel John W. T. Falkner’s law firm. Colonel Falkner was William Faulkner’s grandfather.
John Corlew, and some other Faulkner scholars, contend that Flem Snopes, one of William Faulkner’s most famous characters was, in part at least, based on the life of Lee Russell.
When Lee Russell was admitted to the University of Mississippi, he was blackballed by a fraternity and was determined to end the Greek system at Ole Miss. He secured a hearing before the Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning in 1902 and leveled several charges against the secret Greek societies. Largely on the basis of Russell’s testimony before the College Board, a bill to abolish fraternities was introduced in the legislature but did not pass because Chancellor Robert Fulton and University alumni persuaded the legislature that friction between the Greeks and non-Greeks was greatly exaggerated.
In 1911, Lee Russell was elected to the state Senate from Lafayette County, and one of the first bills he introduced after he took office in 1912 was a law to prohibit secret and exclusive societies at Mississippi’s public institutions of higher learning.
Russell’s anti-fraternity law was enacted and remained in effect for fourteen years.
However, the law was rarely enforced until Russell was elected governor in 1919. Governor Russell was ex officio chairman of the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning, and he directed college presidents to enforce the anti-fraternity law.
At its meeting on November 3, 1920, the College Board, at Governor Russell’s direction, required all students at the University to sign a pledge by “high noon on November 10” that they would not join a secret Greek society while a student at the University.
In addition to the anti-fraternity pledge, the Board of Trustees also imposed severe restrictions on all campus social functions, and on dances in particular.
The new restrictions on fraternities and dances sparked an angry campus demonstration, and a group of students hanged and then burned an effigy of Governor Russell near the center of the campus. When “high noon on November 10” came, thirty students, including part-time student William Faulkner, refused to sign the anti-fraternity pledge.
College kids and fraternities, however, were the least of Governor Russell’s problems. At the end of World War I Mississippi farmers were more prosperous than at any time since the 1850s. The war time demand for staples had driven the price of cotton to record highs, but the end of the war brought a rapid decline of that demand and drove the prices downward.
Compounding the price decline was the decrease in cotton production caused by the infestation of the boll weevil and several years of high rainfall. The measures that farmers had developed to control the boll weevil worked well in dry seasons but not in wet years. Successive crop failures and falling prices during Governor Russell’s administration forced many small farmers to sell their land, and the number of renters, tenants, and sharecroppers increased significantly.
Further compounding Mississippi’s economic dislocation was the outmigration of African Americans and increasing racial violence. Some estimates of Mississippi’s Great Migration from 1910 to 1940 range as high as 300,000. Much of that outmigration was prompted by the search for social and economic opportunities in the northern states, but some of it was to escape, to get beyond the reach of racial violence. In his classic study of racial violence in Mississippi, Neil McMillan explains that mob violence increased from 1918 to 1922. That increase was a response to the growing national sentiment that African Americans in the South were being denied the basic rights of citizenship for which many of them had fought and died during World War I. On July 1, 1919, in response to the increasing national sentiment in favor of equal rights for all citizens, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger proclaimed:
There is a cure for lynchings in the South . . . but so long as busy bodies . . . preach social equality to the negro, drastic measures will be taken . . . this is a white man’s country to be ruled by white men as white men see fit.
The resort to racial violence to keep Mississippi a white man’s country reached such a dangerous level in the early 1920s that a group of prominent white Mississippians published Mississippi and the Mob, a stark warning that widespread racial violence was a threat to society at large. After the publication of this treatise, and Henry Lewis Whitfield’s defeat of Theodore Bilbo for governor in 1923, racial enmity in Mississippi temporarily subsided.
During most of his administration Governor Russell was a beleaguered man, and the stately Governor’s Mansion was his refuge as well as his residence. Governor Russell and First Lady Ethel Mary Day of Hastings, Montana, found some solace in its privacy, and they rarely entertained. They were one of only two first families to occupy the Mansion who did not have children.
In the early twentieth century, from the election of Governor Vardaman in 1903 to the election of Governor Henry Whitfield in 1923, Mississippi politics was an unruly and irresponsible assortment of cliques, clans, and factions.
The Vardaman-Bilbo-Russell faction eventually became the Vardaman faction, the Bilbo faction, and the Russell faction, each accusing the others of disgraceful tactics to win elections and control the power of state.
This orgy of accusations culminated in February 1922 with a $100,000 seduction and breech of promise suit filed against Governor Russell by Francis Birkhead, the governor’s former secretary.
Because Miss Birkhead was living in Louisiana, the suit was tried in the Federal District Court in Oxford in December 1922. Miss Birkhead testified that Governor Russell seduced her and promised to marry her after securing a divorce from his wife. But after she became pregnant, Governor Russell arranged an abortion for her that left her unable to have children, and then abandoned her.
There were allegations that Bilbo had prompted Miss Birkhead to file the suit to sully the reputation of Governor Russell and thus eliminate him as Bilbo’s opponent in the 1924 United States Senate race. Theodore Bilbo, who had recommended the employment of Miss Birkhead to Governor Russell, was subpoenaed, but he hid in a cow barn in Poplarville to escape the summons. Bilbo was eventually arrested and sent to jail for contempt of court, but served only ten of his thirty day sentence.
Governor Russell had filed a series of anti-trust suits against several fire insurance companies, and he claimed that the suit had been concocted by the fire insurance industry to “blacken my career.” First Lady Ethel Russell testified for her husband and said they were “a happy couple,” and that they had never even discussed a divorce. After deliberating for only twenty-five minutes the federal jury found in favor of Governor Russell.
In spite of this favorable decision, Governor Russell’s integrity was severely compromised and both he and the office he held were ridiculed in the state press. He was compared, unfavorably, with Nero, Claudius, and Caligula. The Natchez Democrat wrote that it was time for all Mississippians to bring “the ship of state back to the moorings of honor and common decency.”
The voters of Mississippi were given that opportunity in the next governor’s election in 1923.
Because Mississippi women were eligible to vote in that election, the “cliques and clans” were superseded by a new constituency that elected Henry Lewis Whitfield, a man of vision who could see clearly Mississippi’s brighter future.
After leaving office in January 1924, Governor Russell moved to the Gulf Coast and became a real estate agent. He later moved back to Jackson and practiced law until his death on May 16, 1943. Governor Russell is interred in Lakewood Memorial Park in Jackson. Mrs. Russell died in 1949 and is also interred in Lakewood Memorial Park.