William Bankhead (1874-1940) was a member of one of Alabama's most important political families and served as Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives. He took an active role in passing depression-era and New Deal legislation and sided with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in opposing isolationists in Congress as World War II loomed on the horizon. He was also the father of controversial actress Tallulah Bankhead.
William Brockman Bankhead was born on April 12, 1874, in Moscow, Lamar County, to John Hollis Bankhead and Tallulah Brockman. John Bankhead was a lawyer and member of the Alabama legislature who later served in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. The couple's other son, John H. Bankhead II, also served in the Alabama legislature and the U.S. Senate. Growing up in rural Alabama not far from the Mississippi state line, Bankhead attended local country schools.
Bankhead graduated from the University of Alabama in 1892 and earned a law degree from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1895. Returning to Alabama, Bankhead practiced law in Huntsville, where he was appointed city attorney in 1898. In 1900, Bankhead married Adelaide Eugenia Sledge, with whom he had two daughters, Eugenia and Tallulah. Bankhead was elected to the Alabama legislature in 1900 and 1902 and moved to Jasper, Walker County, in 1905 to practice law with his older brother John. From 1910 to 1914, he served as a prosecutor and in 1916 was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives, where he would serve until his death in 1940.
A loyal Democrat, Bankhead strongly supported President Woodrow Wilson, and in 1928 he endorsed New York governor Alfred E. Smith for president despite opposition from many of his fellow southerners because Smith was a Catholic and anti-prohibitionist. Republican Herbert Hoover won the 1928 presidential election, but less than a year after his inauguration, the nation was plunged into the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in American history. For Bankhead and his fellow Democrats, the economic calamity provided an excellent opportunity to re-capture the White House in 1932. Bankhead supported New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination and, after FDR's election, was an effective champion of the president's New Deal legislative program.
One of the most important laws passed by Congress in 1933 was the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which was designed to improve farm prices by limiting production. Farmers were not required to participate in the program, however, so prices did not improve as dramatically as supporters had hoped. As a result, growers put pressure on their representatives to make the acreage-reduction program mandatory. Bankhead acted on this dissatisfaction in 1934 when he sponsored and secured passage of the Bankhead Cotton Control Act. Like the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the law was designed to restrict cotton production in order to improve prices, but it also incorporated mandatory production restrictions. The measure established a quota on the amount of cotton produced by individual farmers, with a tax levied on individual growers if the allotment was exceeded. The Bankhead Act, however, did not remain law for long. In January 1936 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Agricultural Adjustment Act unconstitutional on the grounds that the federal government did not have the power to regulate the growing of farm commodities. Concerned that the Bankhead Act might also be unconstitutional, Congress repealed the law and replaced it with a program of reducing crop acreage through soil conservation measures.
By the mid-1930s, political observers, including Roosevelt, recognized Bankhead as one of the South's leading politicians. In 1935 he was elected House majority leader and the following year was elected Speaker of the House after the death of Tennessean Joseph W. Byrns. As Speaker, Bankhead loyally guided Roosevelt's legislative program through the House, including the president's controversial and unsuccessful plan to expand the size of the Supreme Court. Perhaps the most important piece of domestic legislation passed under Bankhead's House leadership was the Fair Labor Standards Act, introduced by fellow Alabamian Senator Hugo Black. The legislation established a federal minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, eliminated child labor, and required overtime pay for workers.
In the late 1930s foreign policy issues rather than economic reform dominated debate in the legislative branch. The aggressive stances of Japan, Italy, and Germany threatened to spark a global conflict, and Bankhead spoke out against isolationism. Bankhead strenuously opposed a constitutional amendment that would require a national referendum before the United States could engage in warfare and kept it from being voted on in the House. He also strongly endorsed Roosevelt's internationalist foreign policy and was opposed to the 1937 Neutrality Act, which required the executive branch to block the sale of arms to any nation engaged in a declared war. When war began in Europe in September 1939, President Roosevelt called Congress into special session to amend the neutrality legislation. Bankhead and other congressional leaders successfully amended the act to allow arms sales, requiring foreign powers to pay cash for war materiel and transport the weapons in their own ships.
Given his national prominence, Bankhead sought the 1940 Democratic presidential nomination but loyally stepped aside when Roosevelt sought an unprecedented third term. His commitment to the president was not, however, reciprocated. Bankhead expressed an interest in the vice-presidential nomination, but Roosevelt coolly hinted that he was too old and infirm to serve. Despite the president's rebuff, Bankhead was invited to deliver the keynote address on behalf of Roosevelt's candidacy at the Democratic National Convention. On September 10th Bankhead visited Chicago to open the president's reelection campaign. Just before he was to speak, however, Bankhead fainted and was rushed back to a Washington, D.C., hospital. His health continued to deteriorate, and on September 15 he suffered an abdominal hemorrhage and died.
An adroit legislator who strongly supported Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Speaker of the House William B. Bankhead was arguably
Alabama's most influential political leader in the first half of the twentieth century. He was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery
in Jasper, Alabama. In 1942 the 198,000-acre Alabama National Forest was renamed the William B. Bankhead National Forest in his honor.
"Bankhead, William Brockman." in Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl? index=B000113 (accessed March 27, 2007).
Johnson, Evans C. "Bankhead, William Brockman." In American National Biography, John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Pp. 111-12.
G. Wayne Dowdy
Memphis Public Library and Information Center
Published October 8, 2007
Last updated April 13, 2010