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James Thomas Heflin

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Title: James Thomas Heflin  
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Subject: History of racism in the United States, Anti-Catholicism in the United States, James K. Vardaman, Ollie Murray James, Memorial Day
Collection: 1869 Births, 1951 Deaths, Alabama Democrats, Alabama Independents, Anti-Catholicism in the United States, Critics of the Catholic Church, Democratic Party Members of the United States House of Representatives, Democratic Party United States Senators, History of Racism in the United States, Members of the United States House of Representatives from Alabama, People from Randolph County, Alabama, Secretaries of State of Alabama, United States Senators from Alabama
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James Thomas Heflin

James Thomas Heflin
United States Senator
from Alabama
In office
November 3, 1920 – March 3, 1931
Preceded by B. B. Comer
Succeeded by John H. Bankhead II
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Alabama's 5th district
In office
May 19, 1904 – November 1, 1920
Preceded by Charles Winston Thompson
Succeeded by William B. Bowling
25th Secretary of State of Alabama
In office
Governor William D. Jelks
Preceded by Robert P. McDavid
Succeeded by Edmund R. McDavid
Personal details
Born April 9, 1869
Louina, Alabama
Died April 22, 1951 (aged 82)
LaFayette, Alabama
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Alma mater Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College

James Thomas Heflin (April 9, 1869 – April 22, 1951), nicknamed "Cotton Tom," was a leading proponent of white supremacy who served as a Democratic Congressman and United States Senator from Alabama.


  • Biography 1
    • Pre-Congressionnal career 1.1
    • House years 1.2
    • Senate years 1.3
    • Later life 1.4
  • Legacy 2
  • References 3
  • Further reading 4


Pre-Congressionnal career

Born in Louina, Alabama, he attended the Agriculture and Mechanical College of Alabama (now Auburn University). He never graduated but independently read law and was admitted to the bar in 1893, practicing law in LaFayette, Alabama.

Heflin first rose to political prominence as a delegate who helped to draft the 1901 Alabama state constitution. Heflin argued, successfully, for completely excluding Black Alabamians from voting, stating that he truly believed that "God Almighty intended the negro to be the servant of the white man." As Secretary of State in 1903, Heflin was an outspoken supporter of men put on trial for enslaving African American laborers through fraudulent convict leasing. As detailed in Douglas A. Blackmon's book, Slavery by Another Name, these practices were a brutal, post-emancipation form of slavery in which African Americans were often illegally convicted of crimes and then sold to farmers or industrialists. Heflin explicitly used white supremacist rhetoric to mobilize support for the defendants. He argued before a group of Confederate veterans that forcing African Americans to labor was a means to hold them in their proper social position.[1]

House years

In 1904, Heflin was elected to the United States House of Representatives as a Democrat to fill the vacancy left by the death of Charles Winston Thompson. Four years later, while a member of the House, he shot and seriously wounded a black man who confronted him on a Washington streetcar. Heflin threw Lewis Lundy, a black man, off the streetcar and shot at him through the streetcar window. Lundy received a wound to the head, reports vary on whether it was due to pistol-whipping by Heflin, by the fall from the streetcar, or by a bullet wound.[2] A white bystander, Thomas McCreary, was wounded by a stray bullet fired by Helflin. Although indicted, Heflin had the charges dismissed.[3] In subsequent campaigns, he bragged of the shooting as one of his major career accomplishments.

Senate years

He continued to serve in the House until 1920, when he was elected to the Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the death of John H. Bankhead. In the 1920s, he expressed strong hostility to the Knights of Columbus.[4] In 1928, Heflin further expressed outrage that Al Smith was the party's nominee and inveighed against Catholic influences on the Democratic Party.[5] Hence instead of Smith he supported Republican Herbert Hoover for President and is sometimes credited with coining the term yellow dog.[6] The Democrats thus did not renominate Heflin for the Senate in 1930.

He ran as an independent candidate, losing decisively to John H. Bankhead II. Returning to Washington to serve out his term, Heflin initiated a Senate investigation of voting fraud to try to overturn Bankhead's election. The inquiry lasted fifteen months and cost $100,000.

In that same year, James Heflin officially protested in the Senate against New York's legalization of racial intermarriage between a black man and a white woman. New York senator Royal S. Copeland reacted angrily to Heflin, who replied that if Copeland went someday to the South on a presidential campaign, he would be lynched and hanged by the population.[7]

In April 1932, with Heflin's term expired and Bankhead seated, the Senate prepared to vote on a committee recommendation against Heflin. Heflin delivered a five-hour oration, punctuating his remarks with vehement gestures and racist jokes. As he thundered to a conclusion, the gallery audience, packed with his supporters, jumped to its feet with a roar of approval. They were ordered out of the chamber. Two days later, the Senate voted by a wide margin to dismiss Heflin's claim.

Heflin was suspected of being a member of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1937, the Imperial Wizard, Hiram Wesley Evans, told the press that Heflin had joined the secret order in the late 1920s.[8]

Later life

After his defeat, Heflin was an unsuccessful candidate for election to the House and Senate on several occasions. Later, he was appointed special representative of the Federal Housing Administration under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He died in 1951 in LaFayette.

James K. Vardaman, Heflin, and Ollie James in 1912


Helflin was the nephew of Robert Stell Heflin, a congressman from Alabama. His nephew, Howell Heflin, was also later elected US Senator from Alabama and served from 1979 to 1997.


  1. ^ Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name, 2008, p. 122, 222, 225, 232.
  2. ^ 
  3. ^
  4. ^ Taming Alabama by Paul M. Pruitt, pg 175
  5. ^ History Matters at George Mason University
  6. ^ Encyclopedia of Alabama
  7. ^ "Again, Heflin", TIME Magazine, February 17, 1930
  8. ^ The Ku Klux Klan in American Politics by Arnold S. Rice, pages 89-90

Further reading

  • Senate Historical Minute, "Cotton Tom's Last Blast" (by Senate Historian Richard A. Baker).[2]
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Charles Winston Thompson
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Alabama's 5th congressional district

1904 - 1920
Succeeded by
William B. Bowling
United States Senate
Preceded by
B. B. Comer
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Alabama
Served alongside: Oscar Underwood and Hugo Black
Succeeded by
John H. Bankhead II
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