SIDON, MISS.--The price of being a racial moderate public official in high office in Mississippi during the 1960s came at a high cost. Even worse, if that public official could be identified as a friend of John F. Kennedy.
Frank Smith paid that price on both counts when he was ousted from his Delta-based congressional seat in 1962 after 12 years of distinguished service.
Last Tuesday amid the graceful cedars and crape myrtles which lined the cemetary of this tiny town, Frank Smith found his final resting place in his beloved native Delta soil. His death at age 79 came several days before at his Jackson home following months of failing health.
Smith's defeat in 1962 came very much on the same order of the earlier defeat of a fellow moderate from neighboring Arkansas, Rep. Brooks Hays. And to a large extent, Hays' defeat in 1958 was similar to Smith's, in that an incumbent segregationist governor helped bring about their defeat.
Hays had incurred the wrath of Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus in 1957, by trying to bring about a peaceful solution during the historic desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School. Smith was targeted by the forces of Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, who by the 1960s set out to destroy politically any identifiable racial moderate in office, and any known supporter of President Kennedy.
Probably it was inevitable that Frank Smith wouldn't last too long representing the Mississippi Delta. He had been elected in 1950 against the old Delta powerbrokers, chief of whom was the biggest Delta baron of all, House Speaker Walter Sillers. Smith was too independent for them and certainly was not in tune with their chorus praising white supremacy.
When the segregationist white Citizen's Council came into existence in the mid-1950s and began exercising political clout, Smith's seat became more vulnerable. Still, he managed to win re-election even though his most appreciative constituents were blacks, who made up the largest population but could not vote.
The 1960 presidential election became a sort of political armageddon in Mississippi when Democrats put up the handsome, youthful, and Catholic Massachusetts senator, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was demonized in Mississippi as thousands of Democrats defected and Ross Barnett's unpledged electors carried the state, although only barely.
Of course, Smith openly backed Kennedy, with whom he had a warm friendship since their days as fellow House members. Smith, in fact, had been among a handful of friends who engineered Kennedy's last minute, almost successful bid to win the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1956 after the post was thrown open to the convention floor.
A golden opportunity to punish Smith for backing Kennedy came after the 1960 census cost Mississippi one of its six House seats, making necessary a re-drawing of congressional districts by the Legislature. Barnett forces came up with a "brilliant" solution: to combine the entire second district of Jamie Whitten and Smith's third district into one huge district.
Of course, today under "one person one vote," such a monstrosity of redistricting would be unacceptable, but back then proportionate representation was a doctrine which had not yet become law.
Since Whitten brought with him a big majority of eligible voters from his mostly white district, while Smith had mostly non-voting blacks in his district, the outcome of that confrontation was a foregone conclusion.
No matter that Smith had gained substantial status as an authority on flood control as well as the farm program, white voters in large numbers abandoned him to vote for the more conservative Whitten, then a staunch foe of civil rights, the national Democratic leadership, and John Kennedy. Poetically, in later years, Whitten would become part of the Democratic Party leadership in Congress, and back what most Mississippians regarded as "liberal" legislation.
Kennedy did not forget his friend, Smith. He appointed him on the three-member Tennessee Valley Authority, the first Mississippian to serve on the board of that Roosevelt-era program, which brought remarkable economic and social progress to vast impoverished areas of the South.
For a decade Smith helped shape TVA policies, especially affecting the environment. After his TVA years he shared much of his knowledge and expertise as a part-time professor at several southern institutions of higher learning. Returning to Mississippi, he became an aide to Gov. William Winter in 1980.
To characterize Frank's life as essentially in the political arena is not to capture the total character and talents of this wise, gentle man. At heart he was not a politician but a historian and writer.
In all, he produced four books including a history of the Yazoo River Valley. His best remembered book is "Congressman From Mississippi," which he wrote after his career in Congress had ended. In it, he reveals the intimate struggle of a moderate Southern politician trying to steer his course against a heavy tide of racism.
Veteran Washington journalist Edward P. Morgan described Smith as "a breath of fresh air out of a political swamp." In "Congressman" Smith relates how in the 1962 election many of his friends urged him to break with the Kennedy's or he would lose. To do that, he wrote, "never occurred to me."
It was Frank who introduced me to John Kennedy, and as a result, to recieve an inscribed copy of Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Profiles In Courage," after the 1956 Democratic national convention. Unforgettable was when Kennedy, still a Massachusetts senator, came down to Jackson in 1957 at Smith's urging to speak before a Mississippi Young Democrats dinner at the old Heidelberg Hotel.
As a pre-dinner reception on the Heidelberg Roof was ending, Smith steered Kennedy over to join me and my wife as we were leaving the room to head downstairs for the dinner. Those happy moments in company with the smiling Irishman who would become the nation's next president are forever etched in our memories.
Doubtless, to those selected courageous public figures who Kennedy called "Profiles In Courage," should be added the name of Frank Ellis Smith.
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics for 50 years.