The Magazine

Will Percy’s Secret

The inner life, and outer bounds, of a Southern aristocrat.

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By MARK TOOLEY
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The New York Times celebrated the election of a proper gentleman like Percy, but Vardaman’s own newspaper, the Issue, promised that “the fight between the classes and the masses, between the corporate influences and the people is on, and it will be a fight to the finish.” A young legislator named Theodore Bilbo, who, in later decades, would himself become one of the Senate’s most infamous race-baiters, claimed he had been bribed to support Percy. The state senate denounced him, but this only energized Vardaman and Bilbo supporters against the “secret caucus” of big business and Delta “Bourbons” who had “stolen” a Senate seat for LeRoy Percy.  

Young Will Percy campaigned enthusiastically for his father. Having attended Harvard Law School, he was practicing in Greenville, while reserving his interest for travel and literature. Late at night, alone, he routinely walked the levee that held back the waters of the Mississippi River from the rich Delta lowlands, pondering life’s ironies. Neither of his parents understood their surviving son, whose brother had died in a hunting accident. His father thought him “queer,” and his mother wept over his differentness. Yet Percy not only continued to live with his parents, but served in his father’s law office, walking with him every day to work.

 Senator Percy was a proud, rather pompous, man who was not especially interested in ordinary people, whom he once publicly described as “cattle.” His son hailed his “appealing to the mind not the emotions.” Once, while orating on cotton futures, he was heckled: The younger Percy was contemptuous of the “ill-dressed, surly audience, unintelligent, and slinking. .  .  . They were the sort of people that lynch Negroes, that mistake hoodlumism for wit, and cunning for intelligence, that attend revivals and fornicate in the bushes afterwards.” They were “undiluted Anglo-Saxons,” the “sovereign voter”; and “it was so horrible it seemed unreal.” Some in the crowds carried signs boasting of their status as “cattle.” 

Percy lost to Vardaman in a landslide, a historic statewide shift away from the Delta elite of planters and businessmen in politics. Bilbo was elected lieutenant governor. Percy’s father never sought elective office again, but 10 years later, in the early 1920s, the younger Percy stood by his father when he led the fight against Ku Klux Klan influence in Greenville. Responding to a Klan speaker in the courthouse square, Senator Percy gained an ovation by defending a more benign vision of white supremacy that didn’t need masks, secrecy, or violence. As the husband of a French Catholic who employed Italian immigrants, he defended the “religion of our community,” which included Catholics and Jews. When Klan candidates were decisively defeated in local elections, the Percys hosted a massive celebration at their home featuring four kegs of bootleg whiskey: “The little town had come through, righteousness had prevailed, and we had fought the good fight and for once had won,” Will Percy recalled.

Although his parents thought him odd, the Percys deeply admired their son’s service in World War I. Percy had been a relief worker serving under Herbert Hoover in German-occupied Belgium when, in 1917, the United States entered the war and he joined the Army. His letters from France to his parents magisterially describe the horrors of the battlefield, and, at the war’s conclusion, the elder Percys traveled to New York to welcome their son safely home. 

But father and son would clash in 1927, when Mississippi floodwaters broke the Greenville levee, deluging the Delta and forcing 100,000 to flee. Known for his work in Belgium, Will Percy was tasked with presiding over flood relief. He quickly evacuated white women, children, and elderly, and planned to evacuate the blacks, many of whom were encamped on the levee. (“They had no capacity to plan for their own welfare,” he wrote. “Planning for them was another of our burdens.”) Steamers were standing by to relocate them, but the elder Percy, distressed at the possibility of the Delta losing its black laborers forever, quietly persuaded the relief oversight committee to countermand his son. Will recalled that his father was the “strong rock on which we leaned and in whose shade we renewed our strength”; but he must have been humiliated as Greenville’s blacks seethed for months amid the flood-waters, often forced into labor.