The eldest son in a politically powerful Alabama family, John Hollis Bankhead II (1872-1946) represented the state in the U.S. Senate for 15 years. He began his career as a lawyer and state legislator representing corporations and drafting legislation that disenfranchised blacks and poor whites. Later, Bankhead supported and authored New Deal legislation to help Alabama's farmers overcome the Great Depression, and in doing so helped change the American political landscape, creating a more activist federal government.
Bankhead was born July 8, 1872, on the family farm in Lamar County. He was the son of John Hollis Bankhead Sr., who represented Alabama in Congress for 33 years, and his wife, Tallulah Brockman. His siblings included future Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives William B. Bankhead and state archivist Marie Bankhead (Owen). As a child, John Bankhead attended schools in Wetumpka and Fayette. In 1891, he graduated from the University of Alabama and headed to Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C., where he also worked in his father's congressional office. In 1893, he graduated from Georgetown and moved to Jasper, Alabama, to practice law. On December 26, 1894, he married high-school sweetheart Musa Harkins, the daughter of a Fayette merchant. The couple raised three children: Walter Will, Marion, and Louise.
In his law practice, Bankhead represented railroads, coal companies, and other corporations. In 1901 he joined the Walker County delegation to the state constitutional convention in Montgomery and in 1903 was elected to the state legislature, where he drafted the election laws that disenfranchised most blacks and poor whites, as sanctioned by the new constitution. He joined his father and brother William in purchasing the Caledonia Coal Company, which they renamed Bankhead Coal Company, and served as its president from 1911 to 1925.
When John Bankhead Sr. died in 1920, supporters urged Bankhead to run for his father's Senate seat. After much deliberation, Bankhead decided not to leave private practice, but in 1926 he ran for the seat of retiring Alabama senator Oscar Underwood. He placed second to Hugo Black in the five-man race. He again ran for the Senate in 1930 and defeated Democratic incumbent J. Tom Heflin, who contested the election, arguing that the primary had been unfair and the general election fraudulent, and urged the Senate not to seat Bankhead. Heflin's assertions were based, in part, on a decision by the state Democratic Party that barred him from participating in the primary because he had failed to support the Democrats' presidential candidate in 1928. After a nearly two-year battle in which a Senate subcommittee voted to invalidate the election, the full Senate decided to seat Bankhead.
In the Senate, Bankhead played a key role in writing New Deal policy that was significant to Alabama, a state hit particularly hard by the Great Depression. Very early, Bankhead sought to combat unemployment by introducing legislation to fund subsistence farming. His initial bill failed, but in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt included Bankhead's subsistence homestead provisions in the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), providing 100-acre farm plots and homes to the unemployed for non-commercial farming. Bankhead supported Roosevelt's effort to use government intervention to raise farm prices and introduced several pieces of legislation to achieve that end. In Alabama and across the South, cotton surpluses contributed to lower prices and, consequently, lower farm profits. As a member of the Agriculture Committee, Bankhead supported the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (AAA), which paid farmers to limit production of livestock and cotton. Although farmers benefited from these government payouts, Bankhead recognized that voluntary programs might not achieve the ultimate goal of raising farm prices. In fact, farmers planted less cotton acreage in 1933, but the increased use of fertilizer and scientific farming methods resulted in crop yields that were greater than the year before. Bankhead, along with his brother William in the House of Representatives, co-sponsored the Bankhead Cotton Control Act of 1934, which placed mandatory limits on the number of bales a farmer could produce. The legislation was signed into law by Roosevelt and garnered support from farmers who wanted to see higher prices but was criticized by small farmers and conservatives, who feared the increase in federal power. In 1936 the Supreme Court declared the AAA unconstitutional in the decision United States v. Butler. Congress then repealed the cotton control legislation and passed another Bankhead initiative, the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936, that encouraged diversification and soil conservation by paying farmers to grow crops that did not deplete the soil.
Lower agricultural prices forced some farmers to sell their land and rent from other landowners, leading to higher rates of farmer tenancy during the Great Depression. Bankhead identified tenancy as a significant problem in Alabama and across the nation and teamed with Congressman Marvin Jones of Texas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, to stop this trend. In 1937 Congress passed the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act, which provided long-term, low-interest loans to eligible tenants so that they could purchase land. Bankhead then joined other agricultural leaders in Washington to develop an alternative to the invalidated AAA. Bankhead drafted provisions in the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 that allowed farmers to borrow federal money using their crops as collateral. This legislation gave farmers a source of income while they waited for their crops to sell and required buyers to pay higher prices to purchase cotton and other agricultural products.
In the 1940s, as the nation's attention turned to war, Bankhead continued to fight for farmers. He sponsored legislation, also called the Bankhead-Jones Act, to increase appropriations for agricultural education and to establish research facilities called the Bankhead-Jones Regional Laboratories. In 1941, pursuant to this legislation, Alabama received more than twice the amount of federal funding for rural education as it had received the year before, and agricultural research laboratories were built across the nation, including one in Auburn. Also, Bankhead continued to fight for higher farm prices even when the Roosevelt administration worried that such legislation would lead to wartime inflation. Bankhead also advocated decreases in military conscription because the draft robbed farms of necessary labor.
In 1942, Alabama sent Bankhead to the Senate again, but he did not live out his third term. In May 1946, after a series of
particularly strenuous committee meetings, Bankhead suffered a stroke. He died on June 12 at the United States Naval Hospital
in Bethesda, Maryland. His body was transported to Jasper, where he was interred in the family plot at Oak Hill Cemetery.
Bankhead left Alabama with a mixed legacy. As a legislator and New Deal policy-maker, he perpetuated discriminatory racial
policies that contributed to a shameful history of African American disenfranchisement and segregation. In addition to Bankhead's early career as a state legislator, when he drafted election laws that disenfranchised the vast
majority of African American voters, many of his New Deal programs discriminated against black farmers by placing decision-making
powers in the hands of a small cadre of local elite white men. Bankhead understood that this would prevent many black farmers,
who already suffered under inequitable sharecropping agreements and low crop prices, from receiving their share of federal funds. He also consistently opposed federal anti-lynching
and poll tax legislation. At the same time, Bankhead tried to lift rural Alabamians out of economic depression and contributed
to a re-invention of the federal government's role that would define the rest of the century.
Hamner, Ned. "The Congressional Career of John Hollis Bankhead, Jr." M.A. thesis, University of Alabama, 1951.
Johnson, Evans C. "John H. Bankhead 2d: Advocate of Cotton." Alabama Review 41 (January 1988): 30-58.
Key, Jack Brien. "John H. Bankhead, Jr. of Alabama: The Conservative as Reformer." Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1966.
United States, 80th Congress, 1st Session, Memorial Services . . . in Eulogy of John Hollis Bankhead 2d, Late a Senator from Alabama (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1947).
Watson, Elbert L. "John Hollis Bankhead, Jr." In Alabama United States Senators, 124-126. Huntsville, Ala.: Strode Publishers, 1982.
Angela Jill Cooley
University of Alabama
Published January 9, 2008
Last updated November 30, 2011