[Mississippi History Newsletter Online.]

A MDAH Publication  |  Volume 44 No. 1  |  January 2002


New Members Elected to MS Hall of Fame

Mississippians owe much of their ease of travel to the efforts of Owen Cooper. He was the guiding force behind AHEAD (Advocating Highways for Economic Advancement and Development), the group of business, agricultural, and professional leaders dedicated to building a four-lane highway system throughout the state in the 1980s. Before that Cooper had helped found both the Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance Company and the BlueCross/BlueShield health program in Mississippi. He may be best known for another groundbreaking organization he founded in 1948: the farmer-owned chemical cooperative Mississippi Chemical Corporation. In 1957 Cooper started the First Mississippi Corporation, a venture capital group that became the first Mississippi-chartered company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. He helped initiate the Mississippi Head Start program and was chairman of the Mississippi Council on the United Nations. His progressive views during the Civil Rights era were controversial and may have cost him the chance of being elected governor of Mississippi. Cooper was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1972 and was named Mississippi Baptist Layman of the Century by the Mississippi Baptist Convention.

Burnita Shelton Matthews was the first woman to be selected and confirmed as a federal trial judge in the U.S. Born in 1894 in Copiah County, she received her law degree from the National University Law School in Washington, D.C., and was admitted to the bar in 1920. Unable to find a private firm or government service that would hire a woman, Matthews opened her own practice. She became an ardent suffragist and feminist, working with the National Woman's Party and appearing several times before the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 1930s she was a law professor at American University. In 1949 President Harry Truman appointed Matthews to the U.S. District Court in D.C., where she served until retiring in 1968. The next year she assumed senior judge status and served on the U.S. Court of Appeals and again on the U.S. District Court through September 1983. Throughout her career she presided over several noteworthy legal actions, including the bribery trial of Jimmy Hoffa and the passport denial of singer and communist activist Paul Robeson.

Dr. Jacob L. Reddix was the fifth president of Jackson State University, serving from 1940 through 1967. Born in Vancleave in 1897, Reddix was in the army in 1919 and 1920, then went on to teach public school for fifteen years. He was recruited to serve as a specialist in cooperatives for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. From there he assumed the presidency of Jackson College, as it was then known,at a turbulent time and guided it through the height of the era of segregation and discrimination in Mississippi. Reddix built a new academic program for the college, revamping and expanding the teacher education program. Thanks to his efforts, Jackson State became the primary institution for the preparation of African American teachers and administrators in the state. Under his guidance the school saw the addition of talented faculty such as former poet laureate Margaret Walker Alexander and the construction of twenty-seven academic buildings and two faculty housing units. A strong believer in financial independence, Reddix also was instrumental in the founding of two financial institutions: the Hinds County Educational Federal Credit Union and the State Mutual Savings and Loan Association, the latter of which was the forerunner of the First American Bank of Jackson, the only black-operated commercial bank in Mississippi.

John C. Stennis was Mississippi's longest-serving U.S. senator, holding office from 1947 until 1988 and serving as chairman of the Armed Services Committee and later the powerful Appropriations Committee. Known as "a senator's senator," Stennis was respected on both sides of the aisle. His reputation for integrity was evidenced when in 1954 he became the first member of his party to challenge the actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy on the Senate floor. Stennis also wrote the first code of ethics for the Senate. Back home the senator championed various improvement causes, including the Rural Electrification Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the construction of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. The Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, one of the senator's proudest achievements, employs more than 4,500 people engaged in the development of rocket propulsion and remote sensing technology, while the four forestry research labs he helped establish support the state's huge timber production industries.

The playwright and poet Tennessee Williams (Thomas Lanier Williams III) was born in Columbus in 1911. Soon after that he moved with his family to Clarksdale, where he spent his early years. He began to write poems, fiction, and plays while in college, and he began winning prizes for his plays in 1940. He went on to achieve international acclaim with such works as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He was awarded two Rockefeller Fellowships, four New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, and countless other honors. Some of his characters, such as Stanley Kowalski and Blanche Dubois, have become international icons. Tennessee Williams festivals are held the world over, including annual events in Clarksdale, Tupelo, and New Orleans.

The Mississippi Hall of Fame, established by the Department of Archives and History in 1902, honors distinguished Mississippians through portraits housed in the Old Capitol Museum of Mississippi History. Only Mississippians, either native or adopted, who have been deceased for at least five years, are eligible for consideration for the Hall of Fame. Election requires a unanimous affirmation by the members of the Board of Trustees. Consideration for the Hall of Fame takes place only once every five years, and no more than five people may be admitted each time. Nominees are voted on by the nine-member Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

The first ten members, determined in 1902 by a newspaper vote, included the former president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, and United States Supreme Court Justice L. Q. C. Lamar. The 1996 inductees were Delta Democrat-Times publisher William Hodding Carter II, Choctaw chief Greenwood Leflore, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal publisher George A. McLean, U.S. Senator Hiram R. Revels, and Mississippi Board of Health director Dr. Felix J. Underwood.

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Published by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History • Elbert R. Hilliard, director • Chrissy Wilson, editor
Please send correspondence to: MHN, P.O. Box 571, Jackson, MS 39205 or email to pubinfo@mdah.state.ms.us