Percy, LeRoy

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LeRoy Percy (November 9, 1860 — December 24, 1929) United States Senator from Mississippi, 1911 to 1913, was a wealthy planter from Greenville, Mississippi in the heart of the Delta. His father, Col. William Alexander Percy, married Nana Armstrong. In addition to LeRoy, the family included William Armstrong Percy I, grandfather of the historian and gay activist William Armstrong Percy, III, Walker Percy, grandfather of the Catholic essayist and novelist Walker Percy, and Lucy Percy, who married Mr McKinney, of Knoxville, Tennessee.

After the seat held by Senator James Gordon was vacated, the Mississippi legislature convened to fill it. A plurality of legislators at the time backed white supremacist James K. Vardaman, but the fractured remainder sought to thwart his extreme racial policies. A majority united behind Percy to block Vardaman's appointment. Percy became the last senator chosen by the Mississippi legislature, prior to the adoption of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandating popular election of senators.

Percy held office until 1913. In 1912 he was challenged in the Democratic Primary under the new direct elections system by the populist Vardaman, whose campaign Theodore Bilbo managed, stressing class tensions and racial segregation. The tactic resulted in defeat for Percy, who was attacked as a representative of the aristocracy and for taking a progressive stance on race relations. He advocated education for blacks and worked to improve race relations by appealing to the planters’ sense of noblesse oblige.

Percy retired from politics to run his model plantation at Trail Lake and to practice law for railroads and banks. British investors hired him to manage the largest cotton plantation in the country, for which he got 10 per cent of the profits. In 1922 he rose to national prominence when the Ku Klux Klan attempted to set up in Washington County, Mississippi. On March 1, 1922 the Klan attempted to hold a recruiting session at the Greenville courthouse. Percy arrived there during a speech by Klan leader Joseph Camp attacking blacks, Jews, and Catholics. After Camp finished, Percy approached the podium and proceeded to dismantle Camp's speech to thunderous applause, concluding with the plea "Friends, let this Klan go somewhere else where it will not do the harm that it will in this community. Let them sow dissension in some community less united than is ours."

After Percy stepped down, an ally of his in the audience rose to put forth a resolution condemning the Klan. This had been secretly written by Percy with the help of his son, the poet William Alexander Percy. The resolution passed and Camp ceased his efforts to establish the Klan in Washington County. Percy's speech and victory drew praise from newspapers around the nation.

Leroy Percy State Park, in Mississippi, is named after him.

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