James O. Eastland, 81, a Mississippi Democrat who in 22 years as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee became a living symbol of southern intransigence on the issues of racial segregation and civil rights, died Feb. 19 of pneumonia at a hospital in Greenwood, Miss. He was hospitalized Feb. 7 after choking on a piece of meat.
Sen. Eastland had served more than 36 years in the Senate when he retired in 1979 to return to his 5,400-acre cotton plantation in Mississippi's Sunflower County. He had been chairman of the Judiciary Committee since 1956 and president pro tem of the Senate since 1972.
He was one of a generation of southerners whose domination of key committee chairmanships had given them a powerful influence over the workings of Congress for decades.
At the peak of his authority in the mid-1960s, Sen. Eastland claimed that he had been responsible for the defeat of 127 civil rights bills that came before the Judiciary Committee, usually by refusing to allow the committee to act on them.
But eventually the Senate leadership devised ways to outmaneuver him, and it became evident in subsequent years that his fight was a losing one and the best he could hope for was to delay the inevitable.
By the time he decided in 1978 not to run for a sixth term, he had already given up much of his power, and he permitted a group of younger senators to operate with a degree of autonomy as chairmen of the Judiciary Committee's various subcommittees.
Sen. Eastland generally avoided publicity, usually had little to say and was not widely known outside of Mississippi or away from Capitol Hill. But in fact he was one of the most powerful men in Congress for years, and he had a reputation among his colleagues for fairness in his handling of the Judiciary Committee.
He was liked and respected by many of his Senate colleagues, including the late senator Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) who, although poles apart from Sen. Eastland in political philosophy, called him "a great man" and Mississippi's "most distinguished son."
All federal judicial nominations had to pass through his committee, and Sen. Eastland was scrupulous in honoring the prerogative of any senator to veto a nomination from his home state. Over the years, he did political favors for presidents and senators alike, but he also knew how to collect his due when the time for repayment came.
He held up Senate confirmation on the nomination of Thurgood Marshall, then chief legal officer of the NAACP, to a seat on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for more than a year in 1961-1962, then acquiesced in exchange for a promise from President Kennedy to nominate an old college roommate to a federal judgeship in Mississippi.
With his omnipresent cigar, his thick drawl, white hair and stooped shuffle, Sen. Eastland was in many ways the caricature of the old time southern senator. He came to the Senate in 1941 six months before Pearl Harbor to serve out a term, then won the first of six full terms in 1942.
Once in Washington, he rarely went anywhere socially, returned to his plantation in Mississippi's delta country almost every weekend and preferred to take care of most legislative business over a glass of Chivas Regal scotch in the privacy of his Capitol Hill office at the end of a business day.
As early as 1944 he was speaking out against two of his primary targets, communists and civil rights, charging that "a bunch of communists," were behind an antipoll tax measure before Congress.
Later he would denounce the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision as resting on "writings and teachings of procommunist agitators," and he would contend that the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s had been infiltrated by communists. He supported former Mississippi governor Ross Barnett in his efforts to prevent racial integration at the University of Mississippi. At one point he suggested that the disappearance of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Miss., in July 1964 was "a communist hoax."
As chairman of the Judiciary Committee's internal security subcommittee during the mid-1950s, Sen. Eastland called on the Senate to investigate communist penetration into a variety of endeavors, including the media, and in 1962 he released the results of a study purporting to show that five Supreme Court justices voted "for the communist stance" in a majority of cases.
A lifelong Democrat, Sen. Eastland bolted the party in 1948 to support the Dixiecrat States Rights ticket in the presidential election, and he refused to back Lyndon B. Johnson for president in the 1964 presidential election. He supported Johnson's war effort in Vietnam, arguing that U.S. forces in Southeast Asia should get all the weapons they needed to "rattle the teeth of the Reds in Moscow."
But he opposed all of Johnson's antipoverty and social welfare legislation, drawing the enmity of several critics who noted that Sen. Eastland and his family regularly collected more than $100,000 a year from the government in cotton price supports and diversion cash payments for the cotton plantation in Mississippi.
Born in Doddsville, Miss., Sen. Eastland was reared in Forest, about 40 miles east of Jackson. He attended the University of Mississippi, Vanderbilt and the University of Alabama and passed the Mississippi bar exam after reading law in his father's office.
He served two terms in the Mississippi legislature from 1928 to 1932, then in 1934 moved to Sunflower County to manage the family cotton plantation.
Sen. Eastland was married in 1932 to Elizabeth Coleman, who survives him. He is also survived by three daughters, Nell, Anne and Sue, and a son, Woods Eugene.