Bankhead, William Brockman, 1874-1940
William Bankhead (1874-1940) was a member of one of Alabama's most important political families and served as Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives. He took an active role in passing Depression-era and New Deal legislation and sided with Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt in opposing isolationists in Congress as World War II loomed on the horizon. He was also the father of controversial actress Tallulah Bankhead and uncle to politician and businessman Walter William Bankhead.
William Brockman Bankhead was born on April 12, 1874, in Moscow, Lamar County, to John Hollis Bankhead and Tallulah Brockman. John Bankhead was a lawyer and member of the Alabama House of Representatives who later served in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. The couple's other son, John H. Bankhead II, also served in the Alabama legislature and the U.S. Senate. Growing up in rural Alabama not far from the Mississippi state line, Bankhead attended local country schools.
Bankhead graduated from the University of Alabama in 1892 and earned a law degree from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1895. Returning to Alabama, Bankhead practiced law in Huntsville, where he was appointed city attorney in 1898. In 1900, Bankhead married Adelaide Eugenia Sledge, with whom he had two daughters, Eugenia and Tallulah. Bankhead was elected to the Alabama legislature in 1900 and 1902 and moved to Jasper, Walker County, in 1905 to practice law with his older brother John. From 1910 to 1914, he served as a prosecutor and in 1916 was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives, where he would serve until his death in 1940.
A loyal Democrat, Bankhead strongly supported Pres. Woodrow Wilson, and in 1928 he endorsed New York governor Alfred E. Smith for president despite opposition from many of his fellow southerners because Smith was a Catholic and anti-prohibitionist. Republican Herbert Hoover won the 1928 presidential election, but less than a year after his inauguration, the nation was plunged into the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in American history. For Bankhead and his fellow Democrats, the economic calamity provided an excellent opportunity to re-capture the White House in 1932. Bankhead supported New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination and, after FDR's election, was an effective champion of the president's New Deal legislative program.
By the mid-1930s, political observers, including Roosevelt, recognized Bankhead as one of the South's leading politicians. In 1935, he was elected House majority leader and the following year was elected Speaker of the House after the death of Tennessean Joseph W. Byrns. As Speaker, Bankhead loyally guided Roosevelt's legislative program through the House, including the president's controversial and unsuccessful plan to expand the size of the Supreme Court. Perhaps the most important piece of domestic legislation passed under Bankhead's House leadership was the Fair Labor Standards Act, introduced by fellow Alabamian senator Hugo Black. The legislation established a federal minimum wage and a 40-hour work week, eliminated child labor, and required overtime pay for workers.
Given his national prominence, Bankhead sought the 1940 Democratic presidential nomination but loyally stepped aside when Roosevelt sought an unprecedented third term. His commitment to the president was not, however, reciprocated. Bankhead expressed an interest in the vice-presidential nomination, but Roosevelt coolly hinted that he was too old and infirm to serve. Despite the president's rebuff, Bankhead was invited to deliver the keynote address on behalf of Roosevelt's candidacy at the Democratic National Convention. On September 10th, Bankhead visited Chicago to open the president's reelection campaign. Just before he was to speak, however, Bankhead fainted and was rushed back to a Washington, D.C., hospital. His health continued to deteriorate, and on September 15 he suffered an abdominal hemorrhage and died.
An adroit legislator who strongly supported Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Bankhead was arguably Alabama's most influential political leader in the first half of the twentieth century. He was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Jasper. In 1942, the 198,000-acre Alabama National Forest was renamed the William B. Bankhead National Forest in his honor. His home now operates as Bankhead House and Heritage Center.
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|District of Columbia||DC||US|
|Coal mines and mining|
|Educational law and legislation|
|Engineering Experiment Station|
|Government, Law and Politics|
|Hydroelectric power plants|
|Reclamation of land|
|Representatives, U.S. Congress|
|Speakers of the House, U.S. Congress|