Thomas G. Abernethy Sr., 95, a Mississippi Democrat whose service in the House of Representatives for 30 years before retiring in 1973 resulted in his becoming a ranking member of the House District Committee, died June 11 in Jackson, Miss., after a heart attack.
Mr. Abernethy, who was elected to the House in 1942, had chaired the House District subcommittees dealing with education and the judiciary, and was the committee's second-ranking Democrat at his retirement. He also rose to the rank of third-ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee and chairman of its cotton subcommittee, before leaving Congress.
He represented what was then Mississippi's 1st Congressional District, made up of northern and central parts of the state and stretching from the Mississippi River to the Alabama border. He was a conservative Democrat whose favorite use for federal revenue was cotton price support programs.
On the District Committee, he was long identified with the Southern, conservative wing of his party that monopolized control of the committee and, through it, the District government. Mr. Abernethy at one time favored scaling the District of Columbia back to include, basically, just the federal enclave and returning the rest to Maryland.
He also had an ability to ask District officials pointed and surprising questions at committee hearings. In 1968, the city was bracing for the historic civil rights gathering that was popularly known as the "Poor People's March." There were questions galore concerning public health, police protection, traffic disruption and general aid for the marchers, and the House District Committee met to consider those and other issues.
Mr. Abernethy made headlines when he demanded of city officials, "What are you going to do about those mules?"
The question concerned groups of demonstrators that were to arrive in wagons symbolically drawn by mules.
The Mississippi congressman went on to announce: "There are 25 teams of mules supposedly coming up from my state, if their legs hold out. You've got to put them somewhere!"
City officials, caught somewhat off guard, could only reply that they would examine such options as private stables and U.S. Park Police facilities. That was not good enough for Mr. Abernethy, who declared: "You have to fence mules in, and there's not but one fence in this town -- around the White House ground."
Mayor Walter Washington assured Congress that "we have no intention of putting them there," and that the mule problem would be addressed by city officials. The mules, by most accounts, thrived.
Another side of Mr. Abernethy was seen in 1971, when he stunned fellow members of Congress, city officials and not a few reporters by declaring that Congress should turn over to the city government the power to set local tax rates.
"I am sick and tired of people saying Congress won't give us this and Congress won't give us that. They think we have a barrel of money up here and all we have to do is reach in."
A Washington Post editorial hailed Mr. Abernethy for supporting one of the main planks of home rule, saying "the gentleman from Mississippi seems to have slipped forward into the 20th century."
In 1972, Mr. Abernethy announced that he would not seek reelection to the House and retired to Mississippi. At the time he retired, he was 12th in seniority in the 435-member House of Representatives.
Mr. Abernethy, a Mississippi native, attended the universities of Alabama and Mississippi, and he received a law degree in 1924 from Cumberland University in his native Tennessee. In 1925, he opened a private law practice in Eupora, Miss., then served as the town's mayor from 1927 to 1929. He served as district attorney of Mississippi's 3rd Judicial District from 1936 to 1942.