In 1903, the people of Mississippi nominated the candidates for all public offices, from the governor down to the local constable, in a popular primary election. The first governor elected under Mississippi’s new primary law was James K. Vardaman, an effective campaigner who was known fondly by his followers as “The White Chief.”
Vardaman, who was born in Jackson County, Texas, on July 26, 1861, was reared in Yalobusha County, Mississippi. After reading law, he was admitted to the bar and began practicing in Winona in 1882. In addition to his law practice, Vardaman also edited the Winona Advance. He moved to Greenwood in 1890 to edit the Greenwood Enterprise. In 1896, he founded the Greenwood Commonwealth. His first love was politics and he began his political career in 1890 as a representative in the Mississippi Legislature from LeFlore County. He was elected Speaker of the House in 1894.
After the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, Vardaman enlisted in the army and eventually rose to the rank of colonel. He was stationed in Santiago, Cuba, from August 1898 to May 1899.
Vardaman sought the Democratic Party nomination for governor in 1895 and again in 1899, but the party leadership refused to give him the nomination. After those disappointing losses, Vardaman became a supporter of the popular primary law. In Mississippi’s first primary election, he defeated Frank Critz and Edmond F. Noel, the author of the primary law.
Governor Vardaman, who took office January 19, 1904, was the first governor inaugurated in the New Capitol. Governor Vardaman was a “Southern progressive” who advocated government regulation of large corporations. He personally led the fight against the convict lease system under which state prisoners were leased to planters and railroad companies as laborers. He also strongly favored a child labor law. Later as a United States senator, he was instrumental in the passage of a federal law restricting employment of young children.
Governor Vardaman is best remembered, however, for his extreme views on race. He did not support public education for African Americans beyond the most basic moral instruction and vocational training because he believed African Americans should remain in economic servitude and that education was unnecessary for the kind of work they would do. He recommended the closing of Black public schools and the repeal of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U. S. Constitution, which gave African Americans the right to vote and hold office.
In the third year of his term, Governor Vardaman ran for the U. S. Senate, but was defeated by John Sharp Williams. After he left office, Governor Vardaman edited a newspaper in Jackson and prepared for another bid for the U.S. Senate. In 1911, he was elected; however, his strong opposition to America's entry into World War I and his opposition to President Woodrow Wilson led to his defeat for re-election in 1918.
After he was again defeated for the Senate in 1922, Vardaman moved to Alabama where he lived until his death on June 25, 1930. The town of Vardaman in Calhoun County is named in honor of James K. Vardaman.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1950), 1953.
Holmes, William F. The White Chief: James Kimble Vardaman (Baton Rouge, 1970).
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1912), 81.
Rowland, Dunbar. Mississippi Comprising Sketches in Cyclopedic Form II, 850-854.