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

Early life

Stennis as a boy
Born in Kemper County, Mississippimarker, Stennis received a bachelor's degree, Phi Beta Kappa from Mississippi State Universitymarker in Starkvillemarker (then Mississippi A&M) in 1923. In 1928, Stennis obtained a law degree from the University of Virginiamarker at Charlottesvillemarker, where he was a member of ΦBK and ΑΧΡ. 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.

U.S. Senator

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 remained in the Senate until 1989. From 1947 to 1978, he served alongside fellow Mississippi senator and Democrat James Eastland; thus, notwithstanding his long service Stennis would serve 31 years as Mississippi's junior Senator. He and Eastland were at the time the longest serving Senate duo in American history, later broken by the South Carolinamarker 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 1973, Stennis was almost fatally wounded by two gunshots after being mugged outside his Washington home. 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.

He 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 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

Throughout Stennis' long career, his record on civil rights was poor. As a prosecutor, he sought the conviction and execution of three African American share croppers whose murder confessions had been extracted by torture. The convictions were overturned by the U.S.marker Supreme Courtmarker in the landmark case of Brown v. Mississippi (1936) that banned the use of evidence obtained by torture. The transcript of the trial indicates Stennis was fully aware of the methods of interrogation, including flogging, used to gain confessions.

As a Senator, Stennis was a strong supporter of racial segregation. 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.

Near the end of his life, in the 1980s, he supported civil rights legislation while opposing the national holiday to honor civil rights leader Martin Luther King. 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.

Civil liberties

Earlier in his career, Stennis was the first Democrat to publicly criticize Joseph McCarthy on the Senate floor during the Red Scare.


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. He had not lost an election in 60 years. He took a teaching post at his alma mater, which he held until his death in Jacksonmarker 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


"I want to plow a straight furrow right down to the end of the row."


  1. Stennis Space Center, Stennis History,, accessed Oct 14, 2009


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