Eastland was born in Doddsville, in the Mississippi Delta, the son of Woods Caperton Eastland, a lawyer and cotton planter, and Alma Teresa (Austin) Eastland. In 1905 he moved with his parents to Forest, the county seat of Scott County, Mississippi. His father Woods Eastland was active in Democratic Party politics and served as a district attorney. The son attended the local segregated public schools.
Eastland attended the University of Mississippi (1922-1924), Vanderbilt University (1925-1926), and the University of Alabama (1926-1927). He "read" or studied law in an apprenticeship with his father and passed the bar. A lawyer in rural Mississippi, he was elected to one term in the state House of Representatives from 1928 to 1932.
In the 1930s, Eastland took over management of his family's Sunflower County plantation; he eventually expanded it to nearly 6,000 acres (24 km2). Even after entering politics, he considered himself first and foremost a cotton planter. Cotton plantations were adopting mechanization but he still had many African-American laborers on the plantation, most of whom worked as sharecroppers. In 1890 Mississippi had passed a new constitution that raised barriers to voter registration, effectively disenfranchising most blacks and totally excluding them from the political system. This lasted into the 1960s until after federal legislation was passed to provide oversight and enforcement of citizens' constitutional rights.
Eastland was appointed to the US Senate in 1941 by Democratic Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr., following the death of Senator Pat Harrison. Johnson first offered the appointment to Eastland's father, who declined and suggested his son. Johnson appointed James Eastland on the condition that he would not run for office later that year in the special election to fill the seat. Eastland kept his word, and the election was won by 2nd District Congressman Wall Doxey.
In 1942, Eastland was one of three candidates who challenged Doxey for a full term. Doxey had the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mississippi's senior US Senator, Theodore G. Bilbo, but Eastland defeated him in the Democratic primary. At the time, Mississippi was effectively a one-party state, dominated by white Democrats since the disfranchisement of African Americans with the passage of the 1890 state constitution. The state used poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses to exclude African Americans from the political system. Therefore, winning the Democratic nomination was tantamount to election.
Eastland returned to the Senate on January 3, 1943, elected on his own account. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eastland developed a working relationship that enabled Eastland to oppose New Deal programs unpopular in Mississippi, while he supported the President's agenda on many other issues. Eastland was effective in developing that type of arrangement with presidents of both parties during his long tenure in the Senate. Also effective because of his seniority, he gained major federal investment in the state, such as infrastructure construction including the Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway and federal relief after disasters such as Hurricane Camille.
In 1956, Eastland was appointed as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Under the Senate's seniority rules, he was next in line for the chairmanship. He advanced to chairman, which he held until his retirement.
He was re-elected five times. He did not face substantive Republican opposition until the late 20th century, as party politics were realigning after passage of civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, and entry of African Americans into the national Democratic Party.
In 1966, freshman Representative Prentiss Walker, the first Republican to represent Mississippi at the federal level since Reconstruction and the late 19th-century disfranchisement of blacks, ran against Eastland. That was one of the early campaigns by the Republican Party as it worked to attract white conservatives in the South to its ranks. Following leadership by national Democrats, who supported civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, most African Americans in the South began to vote with the Democrats on national candidates.
Former Republican Party state chairman Wirt Yerger had considered running against Eastland but bowed out after Walker announced his candidacy. Walker ran well to Eastland's right, accusing him of not having done enough to keep integration-friendly judges from being confirmed by the Senate. As is often the case when a one-term representative runs against a popular incumbent senator or governor, Walker was soundly defeated. Years later, Yerger said that Walker's decision to relinquish his House seat after one term for the vagaries of a Senate race against Eastland was "very devastating" to the growth of the Mississippi Republicans.
In 1972, Eastland was reelected with 58 percent of the vote in his closest contest ever. His Republican opponent, Gil Carmichael, an automobile dealer from Meridian, was likely aided by President Richard Nixon's landslide reelection in 49 states, including taking 78 percent of Mississippi's popular vote. However, Nixon had worked "under the table" to support Eastland, a long-time personal friend. Nixon and other Republicans provided little support for Carmichael to avoid alienating conservative Southern Democrats.
The Republicans worked to elect two House candidates, Trent Lott and Thad Cochran. They later were elected and became influential senators from the state. Recognizing that Nixon would handily carry Mississippi, Eastland did not endorse the national Democratic candidate, George McGovern of South Dakota, who was considered a liberal. Four years later, Eastland supported the candidacy of fellow Southern Democrat Jimmy Carter of Georgia, rather than Nixon's successor, President Gerald R. Ford, Jr. Eastland's former press secretary, Larry Speakes, a Mississippi native, served as a press spokesman for Gerald Ford and US Senator Robert J. Dole in the latter's vice-presidential campaign on the Ford ticket.
During his last Senate term, Eastland served as President pro tempore of the Senate, as he was the longest-serving Democrat in the Senate.
Eastland is known for having opposed integration and the American Civil Rights Movement, which became increasingly active in the mid-20th century. When the Supreme Court issued its decision in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas 347 US 483 (1954), ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, Eastland, like most Southern Democrats, denounced it. In a speech given in Senatobia, Mississippi on August 12, 1955, he announced:
"On May 17, 1954, the Constitution of the United States was destroyed because of the Supreme Court's decision. You are not obliged to obey the decisions of any court which are plainly fraudulent sociological considerations."
Eastland testified to the Senate ten days after the Brown decision:
The Southern institution of racial segregation or racial separation was the correct, self-evident truth which arose from the chaos and confusion of the Reconstruction period. Separation promotes racial harmony. It permits each race to follow its own pursuits, and its own civilization. Segregation is not discrimination... Mr. President, it is the law of nature, it is the law of God, that every race has both the right and the duty to perpetuate itself. All free men have the right to associate exclusively with members of their own race, free from governmental interference, if they so desire.
Civil rights workers Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, went missing in Mississippi on June 21, 1964, during the Freedom Summer efforts to register African American voters. Eastland reportedly told President Lyndon Johnson that the incident was a hoax and there was no Ku Klux Klan in the state. He suggested that the three had gone to Chicago:Johnson
: Jim, we've got three kids missing down there. What can I do about it?
: Well, I don't know. I don't believe there's ... I don't believe there's three missing.
: We've got their parents down here.
: I believe it's a publicity stunt...
Johnson once said, "Jim Eastland could be standing right in the middle of the worst Mississippi flood ever known, and he'd say the niggers caused it, helped out by the Communists."
Eastland, along with senators Robert Byrd, John McClellan, Olin D. Johnston, Sam Ervin, and Strom Thurmond, made unsuccessful attempts to block confirmation of Thurgood Marshall, an African American, to the Federal Court of Appeals and the US Supreme Court.
Eastland, like most of his southern colleagues, opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited segregation of public places and facilities. Its passage caused many Mississippi Democrats to support Barry Goldwater's presidential bid that year, but Eastland did not publicly oppose the election of Johnson. Four years earlier he had quietly supported John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign, but Mississippi voted that year for unpledged electors. Although Republican senator Barry Goldwater was strongly defeated by incumbent Johnson, he carried Mississippi with 87 percent of the popular vote (his best showing in any state).) In 1964 most blacks in Mississippi were still closed out of voting, so Goldwater essentially won among the white voters.
Eastland was often at odds with Johnson's policy on civil rights, but they retained a close friendship based on long years together in the Senate. Johnson often sought Eastland's support and guidance on other issues, such as the nomination of Abe Fortas in 1968 as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The Solid South opposed him. In the 1950s, Johnson was one of three Senators from the South who did not sign the Southern Manifesto of resistance to Brown v. Board of Education, but Eastland and most Southern Senators did, vowing resistance to school integration.
Contrary to popular opinion, Eastland did not use the appointment of Harold Cox to a federal judgeship as leverage against John F. Kennedy's appointment of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. Cox was nominated by Kennedy more than a year before Marshall came up for consideration, and his nomination resulted from a personal conversation between Cox and Kennedy. The president, not wanting to upset the powerful chairman of the Judiciary Committee, generally acceded to Eastland's requests on judicial confirmations in Mississippi, which resulted in white segregationists dominating control of the federal courts in the state.
During his later years, in the face of increasing black political power in Mississippi, Eastland avoided associating with racist positions. He hired black Mississippians to serve on the staff of the Judiciary Committee. Eastland noted to aides that his earlier position on race was caused primarily by the political realities of the times, when a major political figure in a southern state was expected to endorse such positions.
When he considered running for reelection in 1978, Eastland sought black support. He won the support of Aaron Henry, civil rights leader and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but he ultimately decided not to seek re-election. Partly because of the independent candidacy of Charles Evers siphoning off votes from the Democratic candidate, Republican 4th District Representative Thad Cochran won the race to succeed Eastland. Eastland resigned two days after Christmas to give Cochran a leg up in seniority. After his retirement, he remained friends with Aaron Henry and sent contributions to the NAACP, but he said that he "didn't regret a thing" in his public career.
Eastland served on a subcommittee in the 1950s investigating the Communist Party in the United States. As chairman of the Internal Security Subcommittee, he subpoenaed some employees of The New York Times to testify about their activities. The paper was taking a strong position on its editorial page that Mississippi should adhere to the Brown decision, and claimed that Eastland was persecuting them on that account. The Times said in its January 5, 1956 editorial:
Our faith is strong that long after Senator Eastland and his present subcommittee are gone, long after segregation has lost its final battle in the South, long after all that was known as McCarthyism is a dim, unwelcome memory, long after the last Congressional committee has learned that it cannot tamper successfully with a free press, The New York Times will be speaking for [those] who make it, and only for [those] who make it, and speaking, without fear or favor, the truth as it sees it.
Eastland subsequently allowed the subcommittee to become dormant as communist fears receded.
Eastland was a staunch supporter of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and shared intelligence with the FBI, including leaks from the State Department. An investigation initiated by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and executed by former FBI agent Walter Sheridan traced some of the unauthorized disclosures to Otto Otepka of the State Department Office of Security.
Hoover received intelligence that Eastland was among members of congress who had received money and favors from Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic. Eastland had regularly defended him from the Senate floor. Hoover declined to pursue Eastland on corruption charges.
In 1974, Eastland led congressional subcommittee hearings into marijuana, the report on which concluded:...five years of research has provided strong evidence that, if corroborated, would suggest that marijuana in various forms is far more hazardous than originally suspected.
In his last years in the Senate, Eastland was recognized by most Senators as one who knew how to wield the legislative powers he had accumulated. Many Senators, including liberals who opposed many of his conservative positions, acknowledged the fairness with which he chaired the Judiciary Committee, sharing staff and authority that chairmen of other committees jealously held for themselves. He maintained personal ties with stalwart liberal Democrats such as Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and Phil Hart, even though they disagreed on many issues. Following Johnson's retirement from the White House, Eastland frequently visited Johnson at his Texas ranch.
Eastland died on February 19, 1986. The law library at Ole Miss was named after him, which gave rise to some controversy in Mississippi given his opposition to civil rights. The University benefited financially from Eastland's many friends and supporters, as it has done from other political figures of Eastland's era. In 2012 the law library was renamed after best-selling author, activist, and former state legislator John Grisham, who had earned his law degree there.
Eastland is the most recent President pro tempore to have served during a vacancy in the Vice Presidency. He did so twice during the tumultuous 1970s, first from October to December 1973, following Spiro Agnew's resignation until the swearing in of Gerald Ford as Vice President, and then from August to December 1974, from the time that Ford became President until Nelson Rockefeller was sworn in as Vice President. Then, Eastland was second in the presidential line of succession, behind only Speaker of the House Carl Albert.