It was a Saturday in the early 1980s before then-Gov. William Winter attended a college football game at Memorial Stadium in Jackson that he ordered the statue of perhaps the state’s most vocal racist, Theodore Bilbo, be moved out of the Capitol rotunda.
“I was with him when he did it,” said Andy Mullins, who at the time was a special assistant to the governor.
The Bilbo statue, which has rested in room 113 of the state Capitol since that fateful football Saturday in the early 1980s, has mysteriously disappeared, Mississippi Today reported this week.
As of Friday afternoon, no one had publicly claimed credit for the removal of the statue, and its whereabouts are still not known.
Bilbo served two terms as Mississippi governor in the 1920s and 30s and was later elected three times as U.S. senator. Among his many egregiously racist actions, he advocated for the deportation of Black Americans to Africa and fought national efforts to pass anti lynching legislation.
The bronze, allegedly life-size statue of Bilbo had been prominently displayed in the Capitol rotunda beginning in the 1950s. But it was the early 1980s when the statue experienced its first upheaval.
At that time, the Capitol building was closed for a massive renovation. The Legislature, during the renovation, was meeting a few blocks away in Jackson at the old Central High School.
On the way to a football game in the early 80s, Mullins recalled, then-Gov. Winter said he wanted to stop by the Capitol to check on the renovation. Mullins said Winter walked into the Capitol, looked at the Bilbo statue in the rotunda and told the workers he wanted it moved to another, less visible location.
“Those workers looked at him like he was crazy,” said Mullins, now an Oxford resident, retired after serving in various education-related capacities in state government including chief of staff to the University of Mississippi chancellor.
“The governor told the workers he wanted the statue moved by the time he came back by after the football game,” Mullins said. “It was not moved when he stopped back by. He called the building commissioner … and told him he wanted the statue moved.”
When the Capitol reopened in 1982, the Bilbo statue was no longer in the prime location in the rotunda. Instead, it was placed in room 113, the largest House committee room — though in the early 1980s, room 113 was used substantially less than it is now with the growth of legislative committee action.
Bilbo died of throat cancer in 1947 in the midst of efforts by his colleague to not seat him in the Senate after his most recent election victory. Soon after Bilbo’s death, a joint resolution adopted by the Mississippi Legislature in 1948 established a commission to memorialize the former governor who, according to the resolution, “worked unceasingly and often alone to preserve Southern customs and traditions and in so doing sought to preserve the true American way of life…and particularly his efforts to preserve this state and nation by his successful fight against the enactment of national legislation, which would have destroyed the United State of America, if the same had been enacted.”
The resolution called for the statue to be placed “in a prominent place on the first floor of the new Capitol building.”
Based on newspaper accounts, Rep. Walter Ray of Madison County was selected to chair the Bilbo statue commission. State funds were appropriated and private funds raised for the effort. Long-time Secretary of State Heber Ladner, who like Bilbo hailed from Pearl River County, served as finance chair for the effort.
A German artist, Fritz Behn, was commissioned to sculpt the allegedly life-size bronze statue of Bilbo, who according to accounts stood about 5 feet 2 inches.
The statue was unveiled in the Capitol on April 12, 1954. Ladner gave the memorial address.
Interestingly, Ladner’s long tenure as secretary of state had just ended when Winter became governor and took the bold action of moving the statue. Mullins said Winter, who years later apologized for some of his own earlier segregationist views, knew Bilbo and heard Bilbo speak on the political trail.
“Gov. Winter was no fan (of Bilbo),” Mullins said.
On the U.S. Senate floor, Bilbo once proclaimed: “The Germans appreciate the importance of race values. They understand that racial improvement is the greatest asset that any country can have … They know, as few other nations have realized, that the impoverishment of race values contributes more to the impairment and destruction of a civilization than any other agency.”
While all governors have portraits in the Capitol, Bilbo and Thomas Bailey were the only two governors with statues. There was a bust of Bailey in room 113 before it was returned recently to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.