James Thomas Heflin

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, most notably as a United States Senator from Alabama.



Born in Louina, Alabama, he attended the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College, and was admitted to the bar in 1893, practicing law in La Fayette, 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 Alabamans 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 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]

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 W. 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. Although indicted, Heflin had the charges dismissed. In subsequent campaigns, he bragged of the shooting as one of his major career accomplishments.

"Cotton Tom" Heflin

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 Hollis Bankhead. In 1928, Heflin supported Republican Herbert Hoover for President and is sometimes credited with coining a term of a yellow dog.[2] Because of this apostasy, the Democrats did not renominate Heflin for the Senate in 1930. He ran as an Independent candidate, losing decisively to John Hollis Bankhead II. Returning to Washington to serve out his term, Heflin initiated a Senate investigation of voting fraud in hopes of overturning 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 state'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.[3]

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.

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 Roosevelt. He died in 1951 in LaFayette.


Helflin was the nephew of Robert Stell Heflin, a congressman from Alabama. His nephew, Howell Heflin, was also later elected U.S. Senator from Alabama, serving from 1979 to 1997.


  1. ^ Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name, 2008, p. 122, 222, 225, 232.
  2. ^ http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1517
  3. ^ "Again, Heflin", TIME Magazine, February 17, 1930

Further reading

United States Senate
Preceded by
B. B. Comer
United States Senator (Class 2) from Alabama
Served alongside: Oscar W. Underwood, Hugo L. Black
Succeeded by
John H. Bankhead II

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