John E. Rankin has made it into the “Top five brawls in American political history.”
It happened Feb. 1945. Frank “Fighting Frank” Hook, a Democrat from Michigan, was called a “communist” by the ever controversial Rankin.
“Liar,” Hook shot back.
Rankin took long strides to the podium and grabbed the liberal by the throat.
Rankin then hit Hook in the face with several short jabs, before other congressional members could separate them. I’m sure this surprised Hook, because he had been a welterweight champion of Michigan, Indiana and Illinois.
Hook later apologized for his words. Rankin did not.
Hook offered to resign if Rankin would.
Rankin was born in Itawamba County, graduated from the University of Mississippi law school, opened a practice in Clay County, became prosecuting attorney in Lee County and then entered politics in 1920. He served for 16 consecutive terms from 1921-1953.
Rankin, a precursor to Archie Bunker, was against blacks, Jews and communism.
He once said, “Do you know who is being discriminated against? The white Christian people of America, the ones who created this nation … I am talking about the white Christian people of the North as well as the South.”
Following Pearl Harbor he said, “I’m for catching every Japanese in America, Alaska and Hawaii now and putting them in concentration camps. Damn them. Let’s get rid of them now.”
He railed against the film industry, “… one of the most dangerous plots ever instigated for the overthrow of this government has its headquarters in Hollywood … the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United States.”
But despite his misgivings, the Mississippi politician did his share of good.
Probably his best was facilitating rural electrification through a co-sponsored bill that created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and ensuring affordable power rates through the Rural Electrification Administration (REA).
He was also influential in drafting the G.I. Bill of Rights and he helped restore benefits to disabled veterans. He would later introduce another bill which successfully raised the base pay for servicemen.
He also played a key role in securing congressional authorization for the Natchez Trace Parkway.
He was an early champion of the Tenn-Tom, but wouldn’t live to see the waterway become a reality. Lock D, which is located in Itawamba County and the bridge leading into Fulton, were later renamed for the congressman.
When Theodore G. Bilbo died, Rankin eyed his Senate seat. The two had a lot of similarities but apparently Mississippi voters were changing. Rankin finished last among the five major candidates seeking the seat, getting 13 percent of the vote.
John Stennis would serve next. His tenure would last 42 years.
Rankin would turn around and try to get re-elected to the House in 1952. He was defeated by Congressman Thomas G. Abernethy.
The man who had come known as “the shoutin’est member of the House of Representatives” returned to Tupelo and resumed his law practice. He also became interested in farming and real estate.
He would die at his Tupelo home on Nov. 26, 1960 at the age of 78.
He is interred in Greenwood Cemetery in West Point.
His wife, Annie Laurie Burrous Rankin, is buried next to him. She died in 1971.
His tombstone reads, “Nature might stand up and say to all the world this was a man.”
A daughter, Annie Laurie Rankin Sanders, donated the former congressman’s papers to the University of Mississippi in 2009. The 86 year old insisted the papers remain sealed until she died.
I hope you've enjoyed this historical feature.
The Lee County Courier runs history articles and pictures every week.
If you live in Lee County, 52 issues for only $22.
If you live in Mississippi, 52 issues for only $27.
If you live in out of state, 52 issues for only $32.
Just mail your check or money order to:
Lee County Courier, 303 West Main Street, Tupelo, MS 38804
Thank you, Jim