United States politician from the state of Tennessee. Member of the U.S. House from 1938 to 1948. Member of the U.S. Senate from 1948 to 1963.
Carey Estes Kefauver was born on July 26, 1903, in the small farming community of Madisonville in eastern Tennessee. His roots on the family farm were no doubt a source of his agrarian and populist beliefs. As a youngster, he accompanied his father through the rich hills and farming countryside that surrounded Madisonville on campaign jaunts on behalf of President Woodrow Wilson.
Kefauver attended and graduated from the University of Tennessee, where he played football and edited the student newspaper. He went on to graduate from Yale law school and came back home to practice law in Chattanooga, Tennessee. After getting involved in local politics, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1938. In the House, he became an ardent supporter of such New Deal programs as the Tennessee Valley Authority and an advocate of congressional and electoral reform.
His support of these programs led to frequent clashes with Tennessee Sen. Kenneth D. McKellar (the Senate's powerful president pro tempore and Appropriations Committee chairman) and the conservative political machine led by former Memphis mayor Ed Crump that had dominated Tennessee politics for decades. It was during his Democratic Senate campaign in 1948 that Crump attempted to identify Kefauver in the minds of Tennessee voters as a traveler with communists and liberals by characterizing him as an instrument of unsavory "pinkos and communists" who worked on their behalf like the stealthy, nocturnal raccoon. Kefauver responded in a speech delivered in Crump's stronghold of Memphis. Pulling on a coonskin cap, Kefauver retorted, "I may be a pet coon, but I'm not Boss Crump's pet coon." Kefauver won, and the trademark of the coonskin cap stuck with "the Keef" for the remainder of his political career as a symbol of the independent, progressive, nonconformist type of political leadership that he represented.
In the Senate, Kefauver became chairman of the Senate Crime Investigating Committee, whose partially televised investigation of organized crime in 1950-51 earned for him the nationwide recognition. Crime in America (1951) was Kefauver's own book on the results of this investigation. A supporter of civil-rights legislation, he consistently opposed the poll tax as a prerequisite to voting. Moreover, he and his colleague from Tennessee, former U.S. Senator Albert Gore Sr., were the only members of the Senate from the South who categorically refused to sign the so-called Southern Manifesto in 1957, which the reactionary Southern congressional bloc issued in response to the United States Supreme Court's desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. It was leadership exhibited by Kefauver and Senator Gore during the civil rights movement in the mid-fifties and early sixties that has been credited with having helped to divert public opinion in Tennessee away from the extremes that resulted in the outbursts of violence which occurred in the deep South.
During the national hysteria generated by the mid-fifties phenomenon of McCarthyism, Kefauver was a consistent and outspoken defender of civil liberties. In what was perhaps the most courageous stand of his career, he was the only member of the Senate to vote against a measure in 1954 to make it a crime to belong to the Communist Party.
Kefauver also conducted several highly publicized investigations into such abuses as administered prices in the steel, electrical, and drug industries and into the inadequacies of federal drug safety regulations. One result of his efforts was the Kefauver-Harris Drug Control Act, which imposed federal controls on the sale of dangerous drugs and required substantial evidence that a drug be both effective and safe as prerequisite to licensing, generic names on drug products, and mandatory disclosure to physicians of information about the effectiveness and side effects of prescription drugs.
On August 8, 1963, Estes Kefauver suffered a heart attack while speaking on the Senate floor. He died two days later at the age of 60.