In Williams v. Mississippi (1898) the US Supreme Court upheld the poll tax, disenfranchisement clauses, literacy tests, and the grandfather clause, all of which were features of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution and statutes. In doing so, the Court added Williams to a line of cases including Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that narrowly interpreted the Reconstruction amendments and helped enforce the suppression of African Americans’ civil rights in Mississippi and other states.
The case originated when an all-white jury indicted Henry Williams, an African American, for murder in 1896. Williams filed a motion to quash the indictment on the ground that the laws under which the jury was formed were unconstitutional. He argued that the provisions of the Mississippi Constitution and statutes addressing suffrage were nothing more than a scheme on the part of the men who wrote the document to abridge African Americans’ voting rights. At issue were provisions regarding residency requirements, poll taxes, literacy tests, the grandfather clause, the requirement that only registered voters could serve on juries, and administrative officers’ discretion to determine which citizens were qualified to serve as jurors. Williams argued that this last provision in particular was discriminatorily applied.
The constitutional provisions were not facially discriminatory, but Williams argued that they were discriminatory when applied by the administrative officers. The administrative officers received broad discretion to determine which citizens were qualified to vote and thus to serve as jurors. This was one method, Williams argued, that the state used to abrogate the suffrage rights of African Americans.
The trial court refused to accept Williams’s argument and denied his motion to quash the indictment as well as his motion to remove the case out of state court and into federal court. The trial court held that removal could not take place because when racial discrimination was alleged, removal was only justifiable when the discrimination resulted from the constitution or laws of the state, not from their administration. After denying all of Williams’s motions, the trial court sentenced him to death by hanging. The Mississippi Supreme Court accepted the case on appeal but affirmed the trial court’s decision.
Williams appealed to the US Supreme Court, arguing that the Mississippi Constitution and statutes discriminated against African Americans in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court’s opinion, written by Justice Joseph McKenna, held that the provisions of the Mississippi Constitution and statutes at issue were not unconstitutional and affirmed the judgment against Williams.
The Court refused to interfere with Mississippi’s application of its laws because “the constitution of Mississippi and its statutes do not on their face discriminate between the races, and it has not been shown that their actual administration was evil; only that evil was possible under them.” This remained true even when the state confessed that its administration of these provisions had been carried out with a discriminatory intent. The court had previously held that states could not use race as an explicit basis for discrimination in civil and political arenas, but in this case, the justices reasoned that as long as the racial oppression was achieved in a facially neutral manner, the Fourteenth Amendment had been satisfied. The court found that merely showing that the provisions of the Mississippi Constitution and statutes might operate as discriminatory against African Americans was not enough; Williams must have presented proof of actual discrimination. Because the provisions were facially nondiscriminatory and could be applied to all individuals, regardless of race, the court found them to be in accordance with the Fourteenth Amendment. The court essentially found that the administrative officers, not the law, were discriminating against African Americans and that no judicial remedy existed for that type of discrimination.
- Wilson R. Huhn, Hofstra Law Review (Summer 2006)
- Ian F. Haney López, Stanford Law Review (February 2007)
- Williams v. Mississippi, 170 US 213 (1898)