Mississippi became the first southern state to disfranchise its African American voters when it called a constitutional convention in August 1890. Over the next dozen or so years, every other former Confederate state called a convention or ratified an amendment intended to eliminate as many black voters as possible. In the process, a large number of white voters also lost the right to vote. Disfranchisement was a decisive episode in southern history because it ended black voting, which had been introduced during Reconstruction, and forged the Solid South, with the one-party system and massively reduced electorate that characterized the region’s politics until the implementation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As was the case in all the disfranchising states, the initiators were the leaders of the Democratic Party, who had never accepted the legitimacy of African American voting after passage of the Reconstruction Act of 1867. The idea that former slaves, free blacks, and their descendants could vote threatened white privilege and supremacy, particularly because African Americans persisted in voting for Republican candidates. In the 1870s and 1880s the Democrats manipulated the black vote, principally through intimidation and violence but also by committing fraud at the ballot box. Especially in Mississippi, these illegal and vicious methods, along with white Democrats’ schemes to fuse with independent black factions, had proven so effective that the Republican Party was quite weak by 1890.
The late 1880s had seen a flurry of interest in calling a convention to revise the state’s constitution. Surprisingly, that interest came from farmers from predominantly white counties who were joining the Farmers’ Alliance to get their economic and political grievances redressed. These rural voters wanted the constitution changed to reduce government expenditures and taxes, end tax preferences for corporations, reduce the Black Belt’s representation in the legislature, and provide for an elected judiciary. As the movement grew, Black Belt legislators realized that they could defuse this challenge by agreeing to hold a convention and focusing on the agrarians’ desire to eliminate the black vote. Most Democrats were also concerned with outflanking the efforts of the northern Republicans in Congress to strengthen the enforcement of voting rights through the recently introduced Federal Elections Bill (the Lodge Bill). In January 1890, therefore, the Mississippi legislature voted 84–53 to call a convention. A mere 39,000 of the state’s 240,710 eligible voters participated in the convention election, choosing 130 Democrats and 4 others as delegates.
The suffrage issue dominated the convention, but finding the means of eliminating black voters proved thoroughly perplexing. The franchise committee considered a vast array of possibilities, including even such surprising suggestions as plural voting (giving more votes to wealthier whites) and woman suffrage (increasing the white vote to offset the black vote). Ultimately, the convention decided to reduce the black vote by instituting such qualifications for voting as lengthy residence requirements, payment of an annual two-dollar poll tax, and literacy tests that required voters to read a section of the state constitution. In addition, the constitution mandated the use of the secret ballot, another provision that required voters to be able to read. Moreover, voters were disqualified if they had been convicted of any of a long list of criminal offenses that blacks were believed to be more prone to commit.
Because the literacy provision would disfranchise many white voters as well, the drafters of the constitution stipulated that merely “understanding” the clause to the registrar’s satisfaction might suffice. The state’s leading Democratic newspaper, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, described this loophole as “a transparent fraud,” and observers throughout the state denounced it as corrupt and out of place in a constitution that was intended to remove blacks and thereby “purify the vote,” as the disfranchisers described their aims, and to end electoral fraud. Further criticism arose from delegates in the Black Belt, who feared that the restrictions on black voting were inadequate. But their demands for an added property qualification were countered by representatives from white-dominated counties, who worried that these tests would remove white voters even though Sen. James Z. George, the chair of the Franchise Committee and an ally of the agrarian wing of the party, had already obtained a reapportionment scheme that favored the white counties. With George assuming a lead role, the entire constitution, including the suffrage provisions and the reapportionment plan, was approved. George was considered the architect of the disfranchisement scheme, which he defended at great length and with stunning self-righteousness in the Senate.
Other states studied and often emulated Mississippi’s approach to disfranchisement, which proved devastatingly effective. A mere 69,905 whites and 9,036 African Americans voted in the 1892 congressional elections, the first held under the new constitution. The main objective of banishing African Americans from the state’s political life had been achieved. The political dominance of the Democratic Party and the white race was secure.
- J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880–1910 (1975)
- Michael Perman, Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888–1908 (2001)