Mississippi: The Past That Has Not Died

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The case of Negro suffrage showed that even token equality was too much for whiles to stomach. In 1865 President Johnson—already fearing for his generous Reconstruction program—urged William L. Sharkey, a former Mississippi Chief Justice whom the President had appointed as provisional governor, to make some gesture toward Negro enfranchisement. It might allay congressional doubts, for instance, if Mississippi gave the vote to those who coidd read the Constitution and write their names and who owned at least $250 in property—perhaps five per cent of the Negro population. Governor Sharkey couldn’t have been less interested.

But the greatest anathema was Negro education. It was not so much a question of integrated schools; it was a question of any schools at all. At Oxford an angry band drove off the missionary assigned to the local freedmen’s school, even though he was a southern man. At Okolona someone fired four shots at Dr. Lacy, the old Episcopal minister who was trying to teach the town’s young Negroes.

“If any man from the North comes down here expecting to hold and maintain radical or abolitionist sentiments,” warned the Nation ’s correspondent, “let him expect to be shot down from behind the first time he leaves his home.” Visitors were shocked by the sheer violence of the state s reaction. Lulled by a carefully cultivated tradition of moonlight and magnolias, they forgot that life in Mississippi had always been closer to the frontier than the Tidewater, indeed had been a true frontier as late as the 1830’s.

Harder to explain was the stream of contradictory assurances that soon became so familiar. Negroes? “The southern people are really their best friends,” a planter told author John T. Trowbridge in 1865. “We’re the only ones that understand them,” someone explained to Whitelaw Reid, another visitor. Just give the southerners time, begged the sympathetic editor of DeBow’s Review: “If let alone to manage affairs in their own way, and with their intimate knowledge of Negro character, everything possible will be done in good time for the social, physical, and political advancement of the race.”

There was also an odd clement of fantasy in it all—almost as if the war hadn’t been lost … in fact, as if Mississippi were dealing with Washington as an equal. When Whitelaw Reid doubted that Congress would seat the ex-Confederates who swept Mississippi’s first postwar election of 1865, his listeners scoffed at the very thought. Of course they would be seated—“because of the tremendous pressure we can bring to bear.” The Natchez Courier agreed: “The State of Mississippi still stands in all its grand individuality. Massachusetts has no more right to dictate to us now about our internal laws than she had five years ago—nor has she half the power.…”

Occasionally a voice of doubt was raised, but the moderates seemed, in the Nation ’s words, “somewhat bewildered … bullied … humbugged.” Usually they could be quickly silenced. When one Mississippi planter suggested in August, 1865, that the Negroes might be trained to use their rights, his companion shot back the clincher that was also getting familiar: “They’ll be wanting to marry your daughters next.”

And this was the heart of the matter. To the ordinary white Mississippian, political equality automatically led to social equality, which in turn automatically led to race-mixing. It was inevitable—and unthinkable. To a people brought up to believe that Negroes were genetically inferior—after all, that was why they were slaves—the mere hint of “mongrelization” was appalling. And all the more so in view of the homage paid the white southern woman. It was she who had sacrificed so much, whose purity, in fact, carried on the whole system. She was everything.

 
 

Of course there were other factors too. Cotton plantters didn’t want their field hands getting out of line; the red-neck farmers worried about Negroes taking their bread. Yet these were areas where something might be worked out; but there could be no compromise—not an inch—on anything that might open the door to race-mixing. Emancipation made absolutely no difference. “A monkey with his tail off,” explained the Natchez Courier , “is a monkey still.”

It didn’t matter that the position was illogical. Northerners might snigger that if the Negro was so backward, why might he advance so far? Other visitors might wonder about the high percentage of Negroes with white blood—surely race-mixing must have once been all right with somebody. None of this made any difference. So in November, 1865, it was easy for the Jackson Daily News to lecture the state’s first postwar government: “We must keep the ex-slave in a position of inferiority. We must pass such laws as will make him feel his inferiority.”