An influential leader in the Tennessee General Assembly in the mid-twentieth century, James H. “Mr. Jim” Cummings was born on November 8, 1890, in Cannon County, Tennessee. He was the second of the five children of John Morgan and Lula Land Cummings. His upbringing in this rural area shaped both his career and ultimately the focus of Tennessee politics in the twentieth century.
Cummings attended Woodbury Academy and then became a schoolteacher for thirty-five dollars a month in Cannon County. Deciding to leave teaching, he made his first foray into politics and the legal system as circuit court clerk from 1912 to 1920. Simultaneously, he served as the publisher of the Cannon Courier from 1916 to 1918. The ambitious and eager young man then took a position as a clerk in the state Comptroller’s Office in Nashville, where he also attended the YMCA night law school. The bar admitted James Cummings in 1922, and he then attended Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee, where he earned his diploma in 1923.
In 1925, he went to work for a land developer in Florida who was capitalizing on the postwar boom. By 1927, that venture failed, and Cummings moved back to Woodbury, where he opened a private law practice. While in Florida, he married Hesta McBroom, his sweetheart from back home. From this point, she was not only a part of his home life, but consistently present in his legal and political life.
At his law office in Woodbury, Cummings earned recognition among local residents for representing them in any endeavor, but he was most famous for two murder cases. Both trials were big in the local news, and the courts acquitted the men of the charges in both cases. A successful legal career developed into a successful political life. James Cummings became a state senator in 1929 and continued to serve in the state legislature as either a representative or senator for the next forty years. His tenure in the legislature was broken only when he served for two years as manager for Gordon Browning’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 1939, and again when he served four years as secretary of state when Browning later became governor in 1949.
Cummings entered state politics during the reign of the Memphis-based Crump political machine. Edward Hull Crump’s machine pushed an urban agenda through alliances with other politicians throughout the state. Cummings, however, formed an alliance with W. D. Haynes of Winchester and I. D. Beasley of Carthage to push a rural agenda. Supporters referred to the three men as the “rural bloc” while their detractors called them the “Unholy Trinity.” Between the three men, they decided that if one of them were in one house of the legislature, at least one of the remaining two would be in the other house. During legislative sessions, they gained infamy for their tactics to sway votes to their side. In the 1941 legislative session, Cummings single-handedly thwarted the Crump forces by making motion after motion. The rural bloc sometimes made motions against one another in sessions simply to tie up the proceedings and stop any legislation that went against its agenda.
The power of the Cummings bloc continued beyond the demise of the Crump machine in the early 1950s. Governor Buford Ellington, who served in the late 1950s and 1960s, noted, “If those three decided to kill you on a particular bill, they could kill you. It’s as simple as that. For at least 20 years they were the spearhead of this rural bloc in this state — and I’m glad to say I always numbered them among my friends” (“Cummings Rites Tomorrow Signal End of an Era,” Tennessean, November 2, 1979).
Aside from their maneuverings within the legislature, colleagues also knew the men for their social pranks. At this time, the Republicans socialized at the Hermitage Hotel and the Democrats at the Jackson Hotel. At the Jackson Hotel, Cummings frequented social gatherings and regaled the crowd with humorous stories.
Their character and mastery of the political system earned them not only the respect of their peers and constituents but their affection. Cummings acquired the affectionate nickname “Mr. Jim” and never lost an election. When he announced his bid to become Speaker of the House in 1967, all other candidates withdrew from the race. Cummings’s peers referred to him as the dean of the legislature, and in his honor they unanimously named a wing of the War Memorial Building in Nashville after him.
In 1972, Cummings decided to retire from political life after it became clear that he could not fight redistricting. Instead of having rural constituents, his area now encompassed more urban areas such as Murfreesboro, which contained its own political leaders. On January 10, 1973, Governor Dunn called a special joint session of the legislature to meet at Middle Tennessee State University. It was the first time the legislature had met outside of Nashville since the Civil War, and the first time it met in Murfreesboro since it was the state capital in 1825. The members honored Cummings for his service by dedicating a plaque that they placed on his seat in the legislature to commemorate his legacy. Also on this day, the university dedicated a dormitory to him in honor of his efforts in education and to the school itself.
Cannon County created “Mr. Jim Day,” and Cummings’s successor, John Bragg, renamed the highway passing through Woodbury “Jim Cummings Highway.” Cummings kept his law office on the Woodbury town square open for visitors and stayed active in the workings of his home. James Cummings died on November 1, 1979, and was buried in Woodbury. In addition to a large crowd of his constituents and friends, the governor and other political leaders such as Al Gore Jr. attended the services.