GREENWOOD, Miss. — Former Sen. James O. Eastland (D-Miss.), the cigar-chomping patriarch of Mississippi politics who served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee for a record 22 years, died today at the age of 81.
A spokeswoman for Greenwood-LeFlore County Hospital said Eastland died just after 4 a.m. of "multiple medical problems, complicated at the end by pneumonia."
Eastland was respected by many and cursed by others during his more than 36 years as senator.
Mississippi civil rights leaders called his retirement in 1978 "the greatest damn thing that has ever happened to this country."
Major Political Force
But Eastland, labeled "Big Jim" by the late columnist Drew Pearson, was a major force in Mississippi politics from the time he was appointed to the Senate in 1941 to fill a vacancy. He was elected in his own right for a full six-year term in 1942 and was reelected five consecutive times.
Eastland was elevated in 1972 to president pro tempore of the Senate, making him third in line of succession to the presidency. In his reign as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, critics contend he used the post to block civil rights bills and to bargain for federal judgeship appointments.
With the black vote an increasingly important factor in Mississippi, Eastland moved in later years to shed his segregationist image.