Open main menu

Prentiss Lafayette Walker (August 23, 1917 – June 5, 1998) was an American farmer, businessman, and politician from Mississippi. In 1964, he became the first Republican of the 20th century to be elected to the United States House of Representatives from his home state.

Prentiss Walker
Prentiss Walker.jpg
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi's 4th district
In office
January 3, 1965 – January 3, 1967
Preceded byW. Arthur Winstead
Succeeded byGillespie V. Montgomery
Personal details
Born
Prentiss Lafayette Walker

(1917-08-23)August 23, 1917
Taylorsville, Smith County
Mississippi, USA
DiedJune 5, 1998(1998-06-05) (aged 80)
Magee, Simpson County, Mississippi, USA
Resting placeZion Hill Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery in Magee, Mississippi
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Dimple Howell Walker
ChildrenTreta Walker Butler
Jan Walker Magee
Alma materMississippi College
OccupationFarmer
Military service
Branch/serviceUnited States Army
Battles/warsWorld War II

Early lifeEdit

Walker was born in Taylorsville in Smith County in south-central Mississippi. He attended public schools in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and in Taylorsville and Mize, also in Smith County. In 1936, he attended Southern Baptist-affiliated Mississippi College in Clinton, Mississippi.

During World War II, he served in the US Army in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Then, he returned to his previous work as a chicken farmer in Smith County and became president of Walker Egg Farms, Inc., based in Mize. From 1937 to 1963, he was the owner of Walker's Supermarket. In 1960, Walker served on the executive committee of the Mississippi Game and Fish Commission under Governor Ross Barnett. Prentiss Walker Lake (originally called Ross Barnett Lake) near Mize is named in his honor.[1]

Political careerEdit

In 1964, Walker was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, which met in San Francisco, California, and he ran as a Republican in Mississippi's 4th congressional district, in the central eastern part of the state. He unseated 11-term incumbent W. Arthur Winstead by some 7000 votes, an 11% margin, the first Republican breakthrough in Mississippi since Elza Jeffords served a term in Congress from 1883 to 1885. Walker's victory is considered to have been strongly influenced by the campaign of Barry Goldwater, who carried Mississippi in the 1964 presidential election with 87% of the vote. Goldwater won many of the counties in the district with greater than 90% of the vote; two, Holmes and Noxubee counties, gave him a staggering 96.6%, tied for his best showing in the nation.[2]

After winning the election, Walker's first public appearance was to speak at a meeting organized by the group Americans for the Preservation of the White Race.[3]

At a Republican fundraiser at the Mississippi Coliseum in the capital city of Jackson on June 20, 1983, US President Ronald Reagan would tell the following anecdote:

Former Congressman Prentiss Walker, who I understand is here today, tells a story about his first campaign. He dropped in on a farm and introduced himself as a Republican candidate. And as he tells it, the farmer's eyes lit up, and then he said, "Wait till I get my wife. We've never seen a Republican before."

And a few minutes later he was back with his wife, and they asked Prentiss if he wouldn't give them a speech. Well, he looked around for kind of a podium, something to stand on, and then the only thing available was a pile of that stuff that the late Mrs. Truman said it had taken her thirty-five years to get Harry to call "fertilizer."

So, he stepped up on that and made his speech. And apparently he won them over. And they told him it was the first time they'd ever heard a Republican. And he says, "That's okay. That's the first time I've ever given a speech from a Democratic platform."[4]

Walker relinquished his House seat after only one term. He instead challenged U.S. Senator James Eastland. He ran well to Eastland's right and accused the veteran senator of being too friendly with US President Lyndon Johnson and of not doing enough to block integration-friendly judges in his position as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Like Eastland, Walker had voted against the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and focused only on the white vote in his Senate race. In the words of Claude Ramsey, president of the Mississippi AFL-CIO, Walker tried to "outsegregate" Eastland, but most white voters stayed with Eastland,[5] who finished with 65.6% of the vote.[6]

With 105,652 votes, Walker polled 26.7% at the general election. His supporters included blacks in southwestern Mississippi, which came as a surprise because of Walker's open support for segregation. Black voters had entered the political process under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and carried Claiborne and Jefferson Counties for Walker in protest of Eastland as a "Democratic Regular."[7]

Years later, Wirt Yerger, the chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party in the 1960s, said that Walker's decision to relinquish his House seat after one term for the vagaries of a Senate race against Eastland was "very devastating" to the growth of the Republican Party in Mississippi.[8]

In 1966, Mississippi House Representative Lewis McAllister of Meridian, the first Republican elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives since Reconstruction, sought to hold Walker's House seat for the Republican, but victory went to fellow State Representative Gillespie V. "Sonny" Montgomery, also of Meridian, who held the seat for 30 years.[9] Walker tried to unseat Montgomery in 1968 but got only 30% of the votes. When Walker again ran for the Senate against Eastland in 1972, as an Independent, rather than a Republican, he drew only 14,662 votes (2.3%). The Moderate Republican Gil Carmichael, a former critic of the conservative Walker, trailed with 249,779 votes (38.7%), as Eastland won handily, 375,102 (58.1%).[6]

Private lifeEdit

Walker and his wife, the former Dimple Howell (1919–2013), the last surviving of six children of the former Emily Dorilla Johnson (1880–1977) and John Fleming Howell (1882–1967), had two daughters, Treta Walker Butler and husband James of Mize and Jan Walker Magee of Magee, Mississippi. Prentiss and Dimple Walker are interred in Mize at Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery.[10][11]

SourcesEdit

  • "G.O.P. Threatened in South by Loss of Backlash Vote," October 9, 1966; ProQuest Historical Newspapers, The New York Times (1851 – 2003)

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ Sherry Soelman. "New sign dedicated at Mize Lake". Retrieved February 5, 2018.
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ Luckett, Robert. "Joe T. Patterson and the White South's Dilemma: Evolving Resistance to Black Advancement". University Press of Mississippi.
  4. ^ "The Humor of Ronald Reagan". museumofhumor.com. Retrieved May 5, 2014.
  5. ^ "Chris Danielson, "Right Turn? The Republican Party and African-American Politics in Post-1965 Mississippi"". academia.edu. Retrieved May 5, 2014.
  6. ^ a b "Walker, Prentiss". ourcampaigns.com. Retrieved May 5, 2014.
  7. ^ Emilye Crosby (2006), A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi, University of North Carolina Press, pp. 195-196.
  8. ^ Billy Hathorn, "Challenging the Status Quo: Rubel Lex Phillips and the Mississippi Republican Party (1963-1967)", The Journal of Mississippi History, XLVII, No. 4 (November 1985), p. 256
  9. ^ "Challenging the Status Quo", p. 258.
  10. ^ "Dimple Walker, Mize, MS". Tutorfuneralhome.com. Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  11. ^ "Dimple Walker Howell". Findagrave.com. Retrieved August 19, 2017.

External linksEdit