Mississippi: The Past That Has Not Died

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“The way to control the nigger is to whip him when he does not obey without it,” thundered Vardaman, “and another is never to pay him more wages than is actually necessary to buy food and clothing.” It soon turned out there were other ways too. The Holly Springs Normal School—the only state institution for training Negro teachers—hadn’t been painted for seventeen years and had an annual budget of only $2,500. But even that was too much. Vardaman swiftly vetoed the 1904 appropriation: “I killed the bill and I killed the school!”

Tighter Jim Crow laws cemented the Negro in his place. One new measure segregated streetcars for the first time; another drew the color line in hospitals; another required Negro nurses for Negro patients. Nor could the Negro look to his old white friends for much help. The conservative Delta leaders, seeing how the wind was blowing, vied for red-neck support with ever more incendiary speeches. Campaigning against Vardaman for the Senate in 1907, John Sharp Williams—a patrician to his fingertips—reassured crowds that he matched his opponent on racial matters. All men running for office, declared Williams, “are paying no more attention to Negroes in Mississippi than they are to the mules tied up by those Negroes.”

For the next thirty years Mississippi’s white leadership never relaxed its pressure. In 1922 a new Jim Crow law kept up with the times by segregating taxis. In 1930 another new law prohibited “publishing, printing, or circulating any literature in favor of or urging inter-racial marriage or social equality.” And if anybody stepped out of line, there were always stronger measures. Lynchings happily declined all through the twenties (thanks mainly to the efforts of the very southern women the practice was supposed to protect), but the figure was still high—and Mississippi led the Union.

These were the days of the revived K.K.K., fundamentalism and the Scopes trial, and it followed that there was less patience than ever with Negro education. In 1930 there were about 3,700 colored schools in the state, but 3,243 of them were one- and two-teacher affairs, often housed in old churches, sheds, and cabins. Half had no desks, and the blackboard was usually a strip of oilcloth tacked to a wall. Perhaps it made little difference, for 2,719 of the teachers had never finished high school—half of those in Sunflower County tested around the fourth-grade level.

On those rare occasions when public money filtered down, it was quickly siphoned off for white use. For 1928–29 Bolivar County received $99,368.24 from the state school fund, earmarked for the county’s Negro children. A hungry board of education quickly diverted $50,562.60 of this amount to white schools instead, then added all the available local tax money. In the end Bolivar spent $45.55 per white child, $1.08 per Negro. At that, neither got much of an education—during the same period California’s rate was $115 per child.

The depression only made matters worse. New Deal pump-priming rarely touched the Mississippi Negro. Through 1935, for instance, there was only one W.P.A. Negro school project in the state. Mississippi itself was already reeling from floods and the crop-killing boll weevil of the twenties. Now, with cotton sinking to 5 cents a pound, nobody could spare any money for “niggers.” Negro wages fell to 10 cents an hour.

World War II saw better jobs and pay, but no change in status. And with peace, Mississippians were no different from many others—they only wanted to get back to the way things used to be. An official committee examining Alcorn, the state Negro college in Claiborne County, was horrified to detect strong traces of a liberal arts program. “There has been too much of a nonrealistic feeling that the purpose of a college education has been to prepare youth for white collar jobs,” scolded the committee. It urged that Alcorn return to the program established in 1878, concentrating on things like sanitation and domestic arts—“skills which actually prepare people to make a living.”

Negro voting also called for attention. The Supreme Court had outlawed the white primary in 1944; now the returning Negro veterans were showing signs of interest. Running in the Democratic primary for the Senate in 1946, Theodore Bilbo—the spiritual heir of James K. Vardaman—called on “every red-blooded American to get out and see that no nigger votes.”

When Negro clergyman T. C. Carter tried to cast his ballot at Louisville that July, four white men twice blocked his way. When Mr. and Mrs. V. R. Collier attempted to vote at Pass Christian, a crowd of men threw Collier down and threatened to kill him if he tried to vote that day. Similar incidents happened all over the state.

“A certain patience,” suggested the gentle Mississippi poet William Alexander Percy, “might well be extended to the South; if not in justice, in courtesy.” Nor was Percy the only moderate to ask for more time as the turbulent forties unfolded.

The trouble was, “more time” all too often meant that the Negro simply drifted farther back. When Mississippi tightened its voting qualifications in 1890, it was argued that the Negroes were not yet ready, since sixty per cent were illiterate. By 1950 the figure had fallen to less than nine per cent, but fewer Negroes than ever were allowed to register.

In Panola County, where the number of Negro voters had dropped from 1,600 to 385 in the 1890’s, the number was now down to 2. During the same period the figure in Holmes County fell from 434 to 8; in Tallahatchie County, from 245 to 1.