Mississippi: The Past That Has Not Died

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Most important were the new qualifications: all voters had to be able to read any section of the state constitution, or understand it when read to him, or give it a reasonable interpretation. This, of course, dumped the final decision into the lap of the examining registrar … who would know exactly what to do.

Reregistration began immediately. In 1885 over 1,600 Negroes had qualified in Panola County; by 1896 the figure stood at 114. The same thing happened everywhere: in Coahoma County only four per cent of its once-eligible Negroes now could vote; in De Soto, only five per cent; in Tunica, two per cent. Loyal Mississippians held their breath—how would the nation react to this giant wink at the Fifteenth Amendment?

They need not have worried. The White House was in friendly hands—first under the conservative Grover Cleveland, later under the benign William McKinley. Congress was no threat either—in 1894 it repealed most of the remaining civil rights laws. The western Populists were bitter at the Negroes for sticking by their old masters. The southern progressives felt that white solidarity would weld all classes more closely together. Eastern liberals recalled the reactionary leaders who had engineered Reconstruction—and found it easy to sympathize with Mississippi. And above all, there was the American mood—a moment of bursting national pride and pious imperialism. As the liberal Atlantic Monthly noted with gentle irony: “If the stronger and cleverer race is free to impose its will upon the ‘new-caught sullen peoples’ on the other side of the globe, why not in South Carolina and Mississippi?”

The Supreme Court added its blessing in 1898. In Williams v. Mississippi the justices solemnly declared there was no reason to suppose that the state’s new voting qualifications were aimed especially at Negroes. It was a predictable decision, for the Court had already shown its hand. In 1883 it had greatly diluted the civil rights laws by ruling that the Fourteenth Amendment protected a Negro only against discrimination by a state, not by private parties like stores and restaurants. In 1896 the Court went a step further: it said that a Louisiana Negro named Homer Plessy had no right to ride in a railroad car reserved by state law for whites as long as there were also “separate but equal” accommodations for Negroes. This time a state was clearly involved, but the Court maintained there was no discrimination. The Fourteenth Amendment required equality, Justice Henry Billings Brown conceded, but “in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based on color.…”

“Our Constitution is color blind,” countered Justice John Marshall Harlan in a lone dissent, “and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” He went on for two pages but caused little stir. The majority opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson prevailed. “Separate but equal” was good enough for most Americans. (For the actions of the Supreme Court in this era, see “Ride-in!” in the August, 1962, A MERICAN H ERITAGE and “The Birth of Jim Crow” in the April, 1964, issue.)

As the new century dawned, it was clear that the Negro—stripped of his gains, abandoned by the courts, and rejected by the country—was in a highly vulnerable position. And for the Negro in Mississippi—the state which had invented the Black Code in 1865, pioneered the “Mississippi Plan” in 1875, and led the way to disenfranchisement in 1890—the future looked bleak indeed. If it needed any underlining, that came from Massachusetts, where Adelbert Ames, Mississippi’s former Reconstruction governor, pondered in retirement. For championing Negro rights, he had been forced out and nearly impeached; but by 1900 even he had finally come around. “I did not know then,” he reflected, “that a superior race will not submit to the government of an inferior one.”

The “superior race” was taking no chances. When Mississippi fell under the progressive spell and adopted direct primaries in 1902, the Democratic leaders made sure they were open to whites only. It seemed the progressive movement had nothing to do with the Negro. In fact, it actually worked against him, for the rednecks and poor whites who supported the trend most strongly were still the very people who feared and hated the Negro most bitterly.

This was fully appreciated by the eloquent man with the flowing locks who ran for governor in 1903. James K. Vardaman lived in Greenwood in the cotton-planting Delta, but his primary appeal lay with the people of the hills. He campaigned in a great lumber wagon drawn by eight white oxen, adding drama and excitement where before there was none. He told coarse, vulgar jokes, to the delight of an electorate weary of proper aristocrats. And above all, he struck the right chord. “The Negro, like the mule,” he cracked, “has neither pride of ancestry nor hope of posterity.”

Vardaman’s appeal proved irresistible. He was swept into office in an election that saw the triumph of the hills over the lowland conservatives who had so long ruled the state. And out with the aristocrats went their sense of noblesse oblige toward the Negroes.