Governor from Calhoun: Dennis Murphree

Dennis Murphree was three times elected lieutenant governor of Mississippi, and on two of those times he succeeded to the governor’s office upon the death of the incumbent. Although he ran for governor in his own right three times, he was never elected. Few people ever wanted to be elected governor more than did Dennis Murphree, but the political scales in Mississippi during his lifetime did not permit this. The following text is adopted from The Governors of Mississippi (Pelican Publishing: 1980) by Cecil L. Sumners.

Dennis Herron Murphree was three times elected lieutenant governor of Mississippi and was twice elevated to the governor’s office. He was born at Pittsboro, Mississippi, on January 6, 1886, the first child of Thomas Martin Murphree and Callie Cooper Murphree. His father, who was prominent in the local affairs of Calhoun County, served four years in the Confederate army and two terms as justice of the peace. He was a member of the school board, twice served as circuit clerk, and was twice elected state representative from Calhoun County. Dennis Murphree’s father was also a newspaper editor and died during his second term as state representative.

The first American ancestors of this Murphree family were three brothers named Murphy who had taken part in Emmet’s Rebellion and had fled the country, seeking refuge in America. When they came to America, they changed their name to Murphree and settled in Tennessee and Alabama. However, his great-grandfather David Murphree, who was a resident of South Carolina at the time, served as a soldier in the American Revolution. His grandfather Martin Murphree served under General Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and was in the Battle of New Orleans. He moved from Tennessee to Chickasaw County after 1830. There he served on the county board of police (board of supervisors) from 1847 to 1849. When the legislature provided for the creation of Calhoun County from parts of Chickasaw, Lafayette, and Yalobusha counties on March 8, 1852, Martin Murphree was one of the seven commissioners charged with bringing the new county into being. He served as the secretary of that commission and helped locate the present county site.

With this distinguished record of public service among his ancestors, it was natural for Dennis Murphree to want to hold public office. Taking over the printing and newspaper office at his father’s death, he was successful in that business and in banking as well. In 1911 he was elected state representative from Calhoun County, Mississippi, the youngest person to be elected to that office from Calhoun County up to that time. His formal education was limited, but he obtained a vast amount of experience in the printing office of his father. He was reelected state representative in 1915 and again in 1919.

Dennis Murphree married Clara Minnie Martin of Pittsboro, Mississippi. They had three daughters and one son. Dennis Murphree was a Methodist and belonged to several fraternal organizations.

Dennis Murphree had oratorical ability, and in 1920 he was unanimously elected as temporary speaker of the house of representatives to serve during the sickness of Mike Conner, the regularly elected speaker. He served thirty days and obtained valuable experience presiding over that body, experience that he used later as presiding officer of the senate.

In 1923 Dennis Murphree ran for lieutenant governor, hopeful that he would not have any opposition. His opponent, however, was Hernando DeSoto Money, the son of Senator Money. Although Dennis Murphree did little campaigning, he won by a vote of 122,827 to 103,065. Mississippi, at the time of Dennis Murphree’s term as lieutenant governor, was experiencing depressed prices for the agricultural products; therefore, he helped promote legislation to help the farmers. Delta State Teachers College (now Delta State University) was established, and the mental institution in Jackson was moved to Rankin County and later named Whitfield. When Governor Henry Whitfield became ill in the summer of 1926, Murphree acted as governor much of the time. On March 16, 1927, Governor Whitfield died, and Murphree was sworn in as governor on March 18, 1927.

Governor Murphree had already announced that he would be a candidate to succeed himself as lieutenant governor; but after he became governor, the pressure was so great from his friends that he felt that he had to run for governor. He thought he should have retired from politics and awaited his turn to run for governor in 1931, but he listened to his friends and entered the governor’s race. He faced two well-seasoned and tough opponents: former Governor Theodore G. Bilbo and Speaker of the House Mike Conner. As opponents, these men were as strong as could be found anywhere in the state. Backed financially by Hugh L. White and L. O. Crosby, who agreed to underwrite his campaign expenses, he ran for governor. During the last part of his term as governor, there was a disastrous flood in the delta, a flood that almost took his life. It required most of his time and prevented him from campaigning properly. He went into the second primary with former governor Theodore G. Bilbo, but Bilbo defeated him by a vote of 147,669 to 137,130.

In 1931 Murphree ran for lieutenant governor against Bidwell Adams and won by a vote of 173,339 to 108,022. Again in 1935 he ran for governor against Hugh L. White and Paul B. Johnson, Sr. He ran third and failed to get into the second primary. In 1939 he ran his third successful race for lieutenant governor, receiving 172,201 votes and defeating three able opponents in the first primary by more than 40,000 votes.

Lieutenant Governor Murphree helped Paul Johnson carry out most of his proposed legislation. This included free textbooks for the schoolchildren of the state, an increased homestead exemption (from $3,500 to $5,000), and an expanded membership for the Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning. This latter move was an attempt to remove the board from political influences. BAWI laws were passed to help “Balance Agriculture With Industry,” as was proposed under Governor Hugh L. White’s administration.

In 1943 he ran for governor the third time against strong opposition consisting of former Governor Mike Conner, Thomas L. Bailey, and Lester C. Franklin. This was a hotly contested race; Bailey barely eased into the second primary with former Governor Conner. Murphree was eliminated. In an upset victory, Tom Bailey won the election for governor.

Then a little more than a month after the November general election, Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr., died on December 26, 1943. Once again, Lieutenant Governor Dennis Murphree was elevated to the governor’s office to serve the remainder of the Johnson term. He served as governor of Mississippi from December 26, 1943, to January 18, 1944, when Governor-Elect Thomas L. Bailey was inaugurated. He had failed to get into the second primary by less than 400 votes. Governor Murphree believed for the rest of his life that if he had followed his own political judgment, he could have beaten Thomas L. Bailey in the first primary and would have eventually been elected in the second primary as governor.

After making three strenuous countrywide races and six hard-fought statewide campaigns, Murphree died of a stroke on February 9, 1949, at the age of sixty-three. He was buried near his home in Pittsboro, Mississippi.

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