Power comes in many forms. The battle for it is called war. Those who prevail are the courageous.
In Mississippi in the 1950s, power was in the hands of the political hacks. The battlefields were back room county party meetings. Wirt Yerger prevailed because he was courageous.
I have known Wirt for two decades now. He is one of those unforgettable characters who irrevocably influences your life. I was fortunate enough to experience this on a personal basis. But whether you know him or not, Wirt Yerger has altered the lives of every Mississippian in the state. He was the founder of the modern Mississippi Republican Party.
In his new book, A Courageous Cause, Wirt Yerger details the history of this 50-year-old battle. Northsider Joe Maxwell, co-author, does a masterful job of illuminating the passion of the day. It is fascinating reading for those interested in politics. The book is full of new insights into Mississippi’s tumultuous 1950s. It is a significant contribution to our state’s history.
The reader is quickly drawn into the monopolistic cronyism of a one-party state, where the Democratic Party ruled with an iron fist and fought tooth and nail to stymie the development of two-party competition. Yerger’s disgust is manifested from the beginning of the book where Yerger states, “We founded the modern Republican Party in Mississippi – the ultimate break with old-line, racist Southern Democrats who didn’t know whether they wanted to be liberal or conservative, but were vocally committed to keeping long-held, highly corrupted power.”
The 1950s time period was the decade Mississippi finally had to face its racist past. Yerger lambasts the Democrats as old-school racists while ardently defending the upstart Republicans as more racially progressive.
Indeed, anyone who knows Wirt Yerger knows ideology is everything and race is nothing. He is one of the least racist persons I have ever known while being one of the most ardent conservatives I have known.
Even today, the left-wing tries to pin the racist label on conservatives. The desire for limited government, low taxes and free enterprise has nothing to do with race. Period.
It is this dynamic that makes Yerger’s battle such interesting reading. Here was Yerger, in his 20s, enormously idealistic, trying to found a progressive Republican Party while the only issue that anyone seemed to care about was race.
During the ’50s it was far from clear whether segregation would be eradicated. The Southern Democrats, led by Sen. Jim Eastland, were virulently anti-integration, which created a huge conflict with the national party, which was becoming increasingly liberal.
This conflict within the Democratic Party created a “ring the wagons” mentality. Their target was Yerger, the young Republican whippersnapper, who withstood excruciating lambasting in the Clarion-Ledger and other establishment newspapers. He was ridiculed and taunted as his party put forth the first real Republican candidates since Reconstruction.
“Race now became the state Democratic Party’s chief political issue used increasingly to scare state voters away from our new party efforts; this vicious racial contempt had always been at their core, but now it became increasingly their bread-and-butter issue and our state’s major newspaper was lock step with them.”
Indeed, in the early years, Yerger was able to prevent segregation being formally adopted in the new party’s platform. Later on, as the integration battle became all-consuming, the Republicans succumbed and officially supported segregation, but they did so in a much less inflammatory manner than their Democratic rivals.
Yerger’s battles were not just with the old-school Democrats. In the early years, Yerger had to wrest control of the meager Republican Party apparatus from Percy Howard – a Washingtonian who had used his label as Mississippi’s Republican head to foster a 30-year, out-of-state career.
The number-two issue of the day, always lurking below the surface of everything, was fear of communism. The communists had claimed they would bury capitalism, and their remarkable progress in taking over national governments seemed to confirm our worst fears.
This tide of communism fueled Yerger’s drive. From his youthful perspective, this was a life-and-death battle between good and evil. How could a racist, hypocritical, monopolistic Democratic Party muster the will necessary to defeat the communists?
Through this all, Yerger had first-hand relationships with all the Republican presidents. His distaste for Eisenhower’s lack of ideological conviction is clear. Nixon also comes off as a dealer. Yerger’s heroes are Barry Goldwater, who failed hugely, and Ronald Reagan who succeeded spectacularly. But even Goldwater and Reagan, as politicians, could never live up to Yerger’s demanding ideological standards.
I’ll never forget my father’s words: “ I was talking to Wirt Yerger and he said you were somebody he wouldn’t hesitate to go into battle with. He must really like you.”
Indeed, Mr. Yerger and I fought some battles together – the record crime of the early ’90s, the tort wars of the late ’90s, the ongoing battle to revive Jackson.
Compared to what Wirt did in the 1950s, all child’s play.