"I really got Jack Kennedy’s attention - you shoulda been there!" Wirt Yerger, the pivotal figure in Mississippi turning from Deep South Democrat to rock-solid Republican, drawled to Newsmax in June 2003.
The occasion was a luncheon of the conservative Mississippi Leadership Forum in the capital city of Jackson. Yerger (who died May 2 at age 92) was inevitably sought out for his stories as a living figure of his state’s modern history and rarely did he disappoint.
It was 1958 and Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, even then a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960, accepted an invitation to address the Mississippi Young Democrats.
Yerger, chairman of the near-nonexistent state Republican Party for two years, "challenged Kennedy to make clear his position on the integration issue when he met with the state’s old-line Democratic leaders who somehow were so enthralled with him that they hypocritically would not question him on the matter."
This was not long after Republican President Dwight Eisenhower ordered troops to oversee the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. For any Mississippian, Yerger’s question was the most important thing Kennedy could answer.
Before a sell-out crowd of Democrats in Jackson, Kennedy read aloud the question of "Mr. Yerger" and replied: "I accept the Supreme Court decision as the supreme law of the land. I know we don’t all agree on that issue, but I think the we agree on the necessity of upholding law and order in every part of the land."
The audience was stone-cold silent.
Kennedy then said: "And now I challenge the Republican state chairman to tell us where he stands on Eisenhower and Nixon." The guests suddenly cheered wildly.
Yerger made his point and his grabbing the attention of the front-running Democratic presidential nominee made Time Magazine and other national news outlets. This the 28-year-old state chairman did with a staff consisting of one per diem secretary and not a single Republican office-holder at any level of which to boast.
Jackson insurance man and U.S. Air Force veteran Yerger changed that. Convincing business associates and fellow veterans to volunteer their time and a bit of money, he nudged a few people to run statewide as Republican candidates in 1961. That same year, Yerger and other Republican activists took to the air with a "GOP Two-Party Airblitz" to gatherings across the state in which participants signed pledge cards and vowed support to the party.
A year later, Yerger and the Republicans hit pay dirt. Joe Sams, Jr. was elected county attorney of Lowndes County by a margin of 2-to-1 and proved, in his words, "[B]eing a Republican in Mississippi is not political suicide."
By 1963, the year Republicans waged a full-fledged gubernatorial campaign, President Kennedy had ordered U.S. Marshalls to escort James Meredith as he registered as the first black student at the University of Mississippi. This infuriated Mississippians and fueled a shift to Republicans.
Yerger and others would be accused of playing the "race card" and benefiting from a "white backlash"—especially in 1964, when Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater swept Mississippi with 87% of the vote after voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But while clearly uncomfortable with federal force applied to the states, Yerger wrote in his memoir "A Courageous Cause" that "our party stood for much more than integration."
Accepting that his state would eventually have an integrated society, he wrote "my principles were solid and long-term and the idealist in me knew they would last."
"While the Mississippi Democrats had a racially divisive — nationally-televised-battle on whether to seat Black delegates at the 1964 Democratic National Convention," former Mississippi Republican State Rep. Ken Stribling told us, "Wirt went on national TV to say that Mississippi Republican welcomed Blacks as well as whites."
As chairman of the Southern Association of Republican State Chairmen, Yerger grew close to Arizona Sen. Goldwater as he sought the presidential nomination.
"Mississippi backed Barry and he stayed in my home when he was here," Yerger recalled, "We stayed up late while he finished off a bottle of my Wild Turkey [bourbon]. It didn’t faze him a bit."
Some of Yerger’s recruits to the party did not work out as he had planned. He frequently told the story of trying to recruit an old Air Force buddy of his brother Swan named Clarke Reed to help him build the Republican Party in the 1960s. When Reed told him "he was too busy at work and being president of the Greenville Country Club, I sat on the other end of the phone thinking '[h]ere I am trying to save the nation and he’s concerned about being president of the country club.'"
Reed finally did become state chairman and, on his way out, played a critical role in his state’s delegation to the 1976 Republican National Convention helping President Gerald Ford eke out nomination over conservative insurgent Ronald Reagan—even as Yerger and most of the Mississippi delegates favored Reagan.
Republicans elected Trent Lott and Thad Cochran as Republican U.S. Representatives in 1972 and both of them would become Mississippi’s first two GOP senators. The late Kirk Fordice won election as the state’s first Republican governor in 1991 and was later followed in the governor’s office by Haley Barbour.
With nearly all major offices in Mississippi now in Republican hands, most of the present Republican office-holders would agree with Sen. Roger Wicker when he said upon Yerger’s death: "He had a vision for what principled, conservative leadership could mean for our state and nation. I stand on Wirt’s shoulders and benefit from the foundation he helped to create."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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