Mississippi: The Past That Has Not Died

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Nor was cost-cutting a viable solution to the state’s problems. Despite all the economies, conditions continued to slide. From the mid-seventies to the early nineties cotton sagged from 11 cents to 5.8 cents a pound. Field hands’ pay fell from $15 to $12 a month … when there was any cash at all. More often there was the sharecropping system, which saw little money ever change hands. Yet the plantation owners themselves were certainly not getting rich. Under a vicious system of liens, they mortgaged their future crops for months or even years ahead to get the tools and supplies needed for tomorrow.

Everything seemed to conspire against Mississippi. While crop prices fell, the farmer’s costs soared. Freight rates rigged in the East increased his shipping charges. Combinations like the jute-bagging trust raised the cost of his supplies. High tariffs added more to his burden. Creditors insisted that he plant only cotton; shackled to a one-crop system, his land quickly eroded. Even nature joined the conspiracy—a flood, freeze, or drought usually came along to spoil the few otherwise good years. Whether holding out in some paint-peeled mansion or hanging on in the squalor of a dog-trot cabin, most Mississippians knew only the bitterest poverty.

The state’s landed leaders proved utterly unable to cope with the situation. They came from the lowlands—the cotton belt that had run everything in prewar days. They owed their authority to an odd combination of ante-bellum nostalgia and redemption heroics—certainly not new ideas. They easily took to the laissez-faire views of eastern business—tax concessions, hard money, railroad grabs like the Texas-Pacific. They shied away from new panaceas like government regulation and flexible currency. Their most lustrous figure, L. Q. C. Lamar, shuddered at the Greenback movement’s “boundless, bottomless, and brainless schemes.”

Such men neither understood nor even liked the upcountry farmers who scratched away at the red clay hills to the east. Desperately these red-necks—along with a growing number of poor white tenants all over the state—turned to new and more radical sources of hope: the Farmers’ Alliance and later the Populists.

And all the while they smouldered with growing hate—hatred for the Yankee banks and railroads that squeezed them so tightly … hatred for the Black Belt leaders who seemed to care so little … and, above all, hatred for the Negroes to whose level they were sinking so fast.

Jim Crow laws began to sprout … the first in twenty years. In 1888 Mississippi became the first state to have segregated waiting rooms. In 1890 Jackson extended the racial barrier beyond death by establishing a separate cemetery for Negroes. The rules grew ever more strict as the margin narrowed between white and colored living standards. If race was all the whites might have left, that was all the more reason to guard this sacred heritage. Woe to the Negro who flirted with crossing the line.

 

Lynchings multiplied at a fearful rate—nobody knows how many, for the press handled the incidents as casually as the weather. “Four Negroes were lynched at Grenada last week,” remarked the Raymond Gazette on July 18, 1885, “also one at Oxford.” That was the whole item.

With Mississippi in this mood, it certainly didn’t help matters when the big landowners met the redneck challenge with thousands of Negro votes from the black counties they controlled. A weird political duel, utterly lacking in logic or principle, developed as the eighties wore on. The old conservative leaders represented traditional white supremacy, yet relied on Negro votes to hold their power. The mass of poor whites had much in common with the Negro, yet fought him as a mortal enemy. The remaining Republicans in the state stood for the Negro’s freedom, yet deserted him as a hopeless handicap. No wonder the Negro himself soon lost interest. Untrained in politics anyhow, he found Mississippi’s brand far too confusing. Usually he just sold his vote to the highest bidder or was thrust aside while someone else cast it for him.

The situation proved too sordid to last. In 1890 a special convention assembled in Jackson to draw up a new state constitution. The solution, most people felt, was to take away the Negro’s vote. Even the Black Belt leaders now agreed—the advantage Negro suffrage gave them was outweighed by the cost (usually a dollar a vote) and the ever-haunting possibility that the Negroes might some day decide to go back into politics for themselves. It was, of course, a little odd to keep Negroes from casting votes in order to stop white people from stealing them, but nobody worried too much about that. A far greater problem was how to do it. The Fifteenth Amendment specifically stated that the right to vote should not be abridged on account of color.

Clearly, the trick was to frame a set of qualifications that would technically apply to everybody but actually eliminate the Negro without touching the white. A poll tax alone was not enough—it might discourage more whites than Negroes. Nor would a literacy test do—there were thousands of good white voters who couldn’t even write their names. In the end the convention came up with a series of devices which were, in the words of one delegate, “a monument to the resourcefulness of the human mind.”