The Mississippi Constitution of 1890, the state’s fourth basic document, capped a turbulent century of legal and political change. Situated squarely in the context of state party politics, the charter reflected post-Reconstruction activists’ goal of restoring white supremacy in the state. Democrats, who in 1875 had used fraud and intimidation to wrest control of state government from retreating Republicans, split into two factions, the Bourbons and the Rednecks. The two groups agreed on the goal of minimizing political participation by black citizens, who outnumbered whites in thirty-nine of the state’s seventy-five counties, but disagreed on the preferred legal means for doing so. The Bourbons, most of them Delta plantation owners, supported formal voting limitations via educational and property ownership qualifications and poll taxes. In contrast, the Rednecks, who included more numerous poor residents from the hill regions, objected to such strategies, which would have disenfranchised poor whites as well as blacks, and sought instead to apportion legislative seats based solely on white population counts.
The Democratic factions remained at odds until early 1890, when Mississippi officials, alarmed by the possibility that Congress would pass a bill authorizing federal supervision of state and local elections, acted. Gov. John Stone approved a legislative call for an August constitutional convention. While more occupationally diverse than its predecessors, the 1890 assembly broke fundamentally along the divides of partisanship and race, with Democrats holding 134 of the 137 seats. Among the Republicans was the lone black delegate, Isaiah T. Montgomery.
For ten weeks delegates pursued the Bourbon-Redneck agenda and constructed barriers to full black participation in Mississippi governance. Like other conservative southern constitutions of the time, Mississippi’s 1890 document prescribed common voting qualifications but added a cumulative poll tax and a literacy test. No citizen could vote without paying two dollars and showing valid receipts for the previous two elections. Nor could one vote without interpreting a passage from the state constitution, chosen at the discretion of a polling registrar. For statewide elections, delegates also instituted a new “county unit system” that assigned one electoral vote to the winner of the county popular vote. Much like the national Electoral College, aggregated unit votes determined the victor. The convention also fashioned a complex legislative reapportionment scheme, including floater delegates and three geographic zones, as a fail-safe in case federal courts struck down the suffrage restrictions.
The 1890 constitution also featured institutional changes that shaped Mississippi’s governance for much of the twentieth century. Delegates authorized the legislature to levy taxes and to regulate private corporations. Bourbons instituted a mandatory committee system to review all proposed legislation, a tactic that worked in their political favor for decades. The office of the governor both won and lost, keeping the authority to appoint judges and gaining partial veto power over revenue bills but losing the privilege of succession. All told the document contained 15 articles and 285 sections.
The convention approved the 1890 constitution by a 129–8 vote. Neither Bourbons nor Rednecks claimed an ideological victory except in their joint efforts to reinstate white supremacy.
The Jackson Clarion-Ledger offered one hundred dollars in gold to anyone who truly understood the lengthy and complex document. No one has ever claimed the reward.
- Barbara Carpenter, ed., Understanding Mississippi’s Constitutions (1989)
- George Etheridge, Mississippi Constitutions (1927)
- Mississippi Law Journal (April 1986)
- Dorothy Overstreet Pratt, Sowing the Wind: The Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890 (2017)
- John W. Winkle III, The Mississippi State Constitution: A Reference Guide (1993)