You don’t hear much about honorary colonels in Mississippi these days.
I’m not sure whether any of the past few governors bestowed the honor, although they may have and I didn’t notice.
There was a time, back in the 20th Century, when newly inaugurated governors frequently appointed as honorary colonels certain individuals who had been their supporters in the previous campaign and who were willing to chip in money to help pay for the inauguration or perhaps other things the chief executive desired.
There’s a section in the Mississippi Code that, among other things, says a governor “may appoint such aides from the citizenship of this state as he shall choose, such appointees from the citizenship of the state to bear the honorary title of colonel and to have the right to wear such uniform as may be prescribed by the governor, but who shall not by virtue of such appointment be deemed a part of the Mississippi National Guard and who shall not by virtue of such appointment participate directly or indirectly in the appropriations made by this state or by the United States for the support of the military department. The appointment of all aides shall terminate upon the expiration of the term of office of the governor.”
In other words, these colonels don’t get paid, unless you count whatever benefits accrue to being close to the governor. More likely they pay more than they receive.
What got me to thinking about honorary colonels was a newspaper article about Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann’s inauguration expense.
The Tupelo newspaper reported that a non-profit organization raised $368,049 for the event. Not all of it was spent on inauguration events with the balance going to charities.
The article also noted that a non-profit organization for Gov. Tate Reeves' inauguration raised more than $1.6 million for his inauguration festivities and transition to office.
A common denominator in both these fund-raisings is that the donors were anonymous so far as public records are concerned.
In the old days, some of those ponying up for Reeves would surely be colonels. But a colonel has to maintain a higher profile than the anonymous donors who have replaced them.
In doing a little internet research about colonels, I came across a 1976 article in the New York Times about the late Gov. Cliff Finch appointing the late comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory as what may have been the first Black honorary colonel in Mississippi, at least since reconstruction days.
The article said Gregory made three speeches at Finch inaugural parties.
Finch, who grew up poor, served in the Army and did construction work before attending undergraduate and law school at Ole Miss, made a remarkable run for governor in 1975. He put together a coalition of black votes and working class whites, many of the latter avowed segregationists as Finch once was.
I couldn’t prove it, but I suspect some of Dick Gregory’s fellow honorary Cliff Finch colonels were members of the Klan 12 years earlier or at least Klan sympathizers.
With his populist appeal to the “working people” by carrying a lunch box, driving a bulldozer and bagging groceries, Finch defeated William Winter in the Democratic primary for governor and Republican Gil Carmichael and Black Independent Henry Jay Kirksey in the general election.
Ironically, Winter had been tagged with being too moderate on the race issue in a previous losing bid for governor and is now recognized more than Finch for racial reconciliation.
Winter finally got his turn in the governor’s office, succeeding Finch after the 1979 election.
By then Finch’s popularity had waned. Governors couldn’t serve a successive second term then, so he couldn’t run for re-election. He lost the 1978 race for the Senate in the Democratic primary and a bid for president against Jimmy Carter in 1980.
But he may have had the most diverse honorary colonels staff of the 1900s.