Mississippi: The Past That Has Not Died

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Mississippi’s new government understood. Under President Johnson’s generous terms the state had freed the slaves but done little else. A new constitution had been drafted—but it seemed pretty much along prewar lines. A new state legislature had been chosen—but it featured many old leaders. A new governor had been elected—but he was Benjamin G. Humphreys, an outstanding Confederate general who hadn’t even been pardoned yet. On November 20, 1865, Governor Humphreys set the tone of things in a message to the legislature: “Under the pressure of federal bayonets, urged on by the misdirected sympathies of the world, the people of Mississippi have abolished the institution of slavery. The Negro is free, whether we like it or not; we must realize that fact now and forever. To be free, however, does not make him a citizen, or entitle him to social or political equality with the white man.”

A series of laws, later known as the Black Code, swiftly put the Negro in his place. He was allowed to marry, own property, sue and be sued, even testify if he was a party—but that was all. No Negro could vote, keep firearms, rent a home outside town, ride in a first-class railroad car with whites, or “make insulting gestures.” Any unemployed Negro over eighteen was declared a vagrant, fined $50, and turned over to whoever paid up. Any unsupported Negro under eighteen could be apprenticed out. If he tried to run away, “the master or mistress” (the law easily slipped back into ante-bellum language) had the right to pursue and recapture.

Reaction was not long in coming. “We tell the white men of Mississippi,” exploded the Chicago Tribune on December 1, “that the men of the North will convert the state of Mississippi into a frog pond before they will allow any such laws to disgrace one foot of soil in which the bones of our soldiers sleep and over which the flag of freedom waves.”

Northern fury grew as other southern states followed Mississippi’s lead with Black Codes of their own. Finally, in 1867 Congress threw out President Johnson’s Reconstruction program and launched a far harsher one of its own. The Confederate-dominated state governments were scrapped, and the South was divided into five military districts, each under martial law. Negroes were given the vote, new constitutional conventions held. No state could get back into the Union until Congress approved its new government … until it granted Negro suffrage … until it ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing the people of every state (among other things) “equal protection of the laws.”

Mississippi eventually knuckled under, but only after three more years of rear-guard defiance. By 1870, however, the state was “reconstructed,” and by 1873 the local Radical Republicans were riding high. The electorate was fifty-seven per cent Negro—mostly illiterate and easily controlled. The legislature boasted sixty-four Negroes and twenty-four carpetbaggers. The Speaker of the House, the lieutenant governor, the superintendent of education were all Negroes. The new Reconstruction governor himself was an ex-Union officer—General Adelbert Ames, a remote, tactless New Englander who stayed away from Mississippi for protracted periods.

It would later be argued that this state government turned in an impressive performance, and indeed there were many bright spots. The Negro legislators included at least fifteen well-educated, conscientious clergymen. The carpetbaggers were often solid middle westerners who had come not to loot but to farm. The Negro troops had all been withdrawn, and only a token force of federals remained—for instance, 59 at Natchez, 129 at Vicksburg, about 700 men altogether. The state debt never got out of hand.∗ There was little stealing—the only major case involved the carpetbag treasurer of the state hospital in Natchez who took $7,251.81. And all the while important things were being accomplished—war-damaged bridges repaired, northern innovations like free hospitals established, courts expanded to take care of the freedmen, and a whole public-school system launched.

∗ For further discussion of Mississippi finances, and defaulted bonds, the Editors suggest that readers consult our issue of December, 1964, p. 110 ff.

All this was done, but it would take the perspective of a century to appreciate it. At the time the white people of Mississippi felt only bitterness. They didn’t care if most of the troops were gone; one blue uniform was too many. They didn’t know about worthy projects; they only knew taxes on land had soared 1,300 per cent in five years. They didn’t notice that most key officials were honest; in their frayed poverty, they only saw any sign of waste: why, the state contingency fund even paid for Governor Ames’ bedpan. And perhaps most important, they knew little about the conscientious work of many Negroes in top-level positions; they only knew their own county, where they were in daily contact, and that was often appalling.

Negro sheriffs, clerks, and magistrates thrashed about in confusion and ignorance. In Warren County the sheriff couldn’t write a simple return. In Issaquena County not one member of the board of supervisors—responsible for handling the county’s business—could read a contract. There wasn’t a justice of the peace in Madison County who could write a summons.