June 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 4
Splinters flew in every direction as the Union troops hacked away at the chairs and tables of Edward McGehee, a wealthy cotton planter in Wilkinson County, Mississippi. It was October 5, 1864, and Colonel E. D. Osband’s men were simply acting on the philosophy expressed by General Sherman when he told a group of protesting Mississippians, “It is our duty to destroy, not build up; therefore do not look to us to help you.”
Soon the work was done, the house in flames, and Edward McGehee left contemplating his only remaining possession—a gracefully caned grand piano. It was no comfort to Mr. McGehee, once the owner of hundreds of Negro slaves, that these deeds were done by a company of stern, efficient Negro soldiers.
Ruin upon ruin, the destruction continued for six more gruelling months of war. By the end, Mississippi seemed but a forest of chimneys. The whole town of Okolona could be bought for $5,000. There was not a fence left within miles of Corinth, not a clock running in Natchez. The capital, Jackson, was in ashes—the Confederate Hotel as complete a wreck as the cause it honored.
The first visitors from the North were stunned. Approaching old Charles Langworthy’s home near Aberdeen, a man from Chicago recalled spending two pleasant weeks there back in 1855. Greeting the owner, the visitor quickly asked after Mr. Langworthy’s five boys and two girls.
“Where is John, your oldest son?”
“Killed at Shiloh.”
“Where is William?”
“Died of smallpox in the Army.”
“And the other boys?”
“All were killed.…”
The Langworthy daughters came forward, dripping with mourning. Not only were their brothers gone; both also had lost their husbands in the service.
The incident was all too typical. Mississippi had sent 78,000 into the fight; only 28,000 came back. Whole companies were wiped out—the Vicksburg Cadets marched off 123 strong; only six returned. One legacy of this sacrifice was 10,000 orphans.
Nor were those who returned always able to play their full part. Surgery was not one of the happier aspects of the Civil War. Empty sleeves flapped everywhere. At a town meeting in Aberdeen a visitor noticed that one hundred of the three hundred men present had lost either an arm or a leg. It is not surprising that in the first year after the war Mississippi spent one fifth of its entire revenue for artificial limbs.
Painfully, the people of the state struggled to live again. Nearly everyone was wiped out. The greatest source of wealth—436,ooo slaves worth over 218 million dollars—had vanished with Emancipation. The farm animals that meant so much to a rural people had been carried off—one out of every three mules gone. Most of the cotton was confiscated as Confederate property; any that escaped was mercilessly taxed by Washington. Land values crashed—on December 13, 1865, alone, the Vicksburg Herald advertised forty-eight plantations for sale or lease. After five years of war Mississippi tumbled from the nation’s fifth state in per capita wealth to the very bottom of the list.
“My children, I am a ruined man,” Thomas Dabney told his daughters one evening in November, 1866. In happier days Mr. Dabney had endorsed some notes. At the time there seemed little danger—the risk was good and Dabney was the wealthy owner of Burleigh, a fabulous plantation near the town of Raymond. But now times had changed, and the sheriff was downstairs.
But this time the General had met his match. “He shall never bring my daughters to the washtub,” Dabney thundered. “I’ll do the washing myself!” And he did. Dabney was now seventy years old, but for the next two years he scrubbed away, grimly satisfied that here at least he was foiling the hated Yankee.
There were other consolations too, as the people of Mississippi struggled to recover. There was relief that the war was over—whatever their original feelings, most Mississippians were heartily sick of destruction. There was also hope that the state could get back into the Union rather painlessly; President Andrew Johnson had decided to carry on Lincoln’s lenient plans for restoration. Best of all, there was the land. Mississippi’s towns might lie in ruins, but her matchless asset was the soil itself. If only cotton could get going again…
But that was the problem. If the key to prosperity was cotton, the key to cotton had always been slaves—and there weren’t any slaves any more. Over 380,000 freedmen aimlessly roamed the state, nearly all of them at loose ends, living where they chose, eating off the federal troops. The fomier owners had no influence. Most Negroes felt this was what freedom meant—no work. And there were plenty of people around the Union Army camps who advised them not to go back to their old masters. There were even rumors that Washington soon would be dividing up the plantations—forty acres and a mule for everyone.
Actually Washington was never more at cross-purposes. President Johnson suffered from being a stales’ rights Democrat from Tennessee, and as his prestige waned so did the chances for his lenient program. The Radical Republicans in Congress were winning control over national policy, but beyond a thirst for revenge, they had no clear-cut plans at all. As late as October, 1865, the Radical leader Thaddctis Stevens was asking his friend Charles Sumner if he knew of any good books on how the Russians freed their serfs.
The Negroes themselves could be of very little help in solving their problems. Over ninety-five per cent were illiterate, in the old days it had been illegal to teach the slaves to read or write, and now they were hopelessly ignorant. Few had any idea of citizenship, law, suffrage, or responsibility. Hauled before a court for stealing a bag of corn, one ex-slave happily camping on Jefferson Davis’ plantation was asked if he wanted a jury trial.
“What’s that?’ was all he could say.
The whites felt cornered and helpless. For years they had done as they wanted with these people, and now the tables were turned. They were generally outnumbered, and in the rich cotton areas the margin seemed appalling—Bolivar County was eighty-seven per cent Xegro; Issaqucna County had 7,000 Negroes, only 600 whites.
But most frightening of all to white Mississippi residents were the Negro troops. When the United States Army’s XVI Corps went home in August, 1865, 9, 122 of the 10,193 Union soldiers still in the state were Negroes. Their mere presence seemed to invite the most hideous trouble. In Jackson, Major Barnes, commanding the 5th U.S. Colored Infantry, urged the local Negroes to defend their rights even to the “click of the pistol and at the point of the bayonet.”
And incidents did happen. William Wilkinson was murdered at Lauderdale Springs by five of his former slaves for selling his plantation—they claimed it was rightfully theirs by Christmas. This sort of bloodshed was rare, but it was enough to set off the whites.
Terror bred fantastic: rumors. The Natchez Courier warned that the county’s Negroes were supposed to rise on New Year’s Day. In Yazoo City the date was Christmas. The Brandon Republican set no date but reported, “They are evidently preparing something and it behooves us to be on the alert and prepare for the worst.” There was nothing to any of these reports, but each rumor hardened the feelings of the whites.
They soon developed a fierce callousness toward the Negro, no matter how harmless he might be. On a quiet Sunday afternoon in Natchez an elderly freedman protested to a small white boy raiding his turnip patch. The boy shot him dead, and that was that. In Vicksburg the Herald complained that the town’s children were hitting innocent bystanders when using their “nigger shooters.”
Nor was it just the specter of Negro supremacy that aroused white Mississippians—Negro equality was just as bad. “God damn your soul, get off this boat!” raged the captain of the Memphis-Vicksburg packet on Christmas morning, 1865. The greeting was directed at a Negro couple who had dared ask for first-class passage. As their luggage was pitched ashore, the captain turned back to his work muttering, “They can’t force their damned nigger equality on me.”
Even when the principle of equality was acknowledged, the practice must have mystified the beneficiaries. “Take off your hat, you black scoundrel, or I’ll cut your throat,” a Mississippi state legislator yelled at his former slave; later he explained, “Sam, you’ve got just the same rights as a white man now, but not a bit better, and if you come into my room again without taking off your hat, I’ll shoot you.”
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.”
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.
Petty corruption spread everywhere, often induced by light-fingered whites. Hinds County ran up a bigger printing bill in nine months than the whole state paid in 1866–67. The Wilkinson County board of supervisors shelled out $1,500 for three bridges—containing four, eight, and twenty planks respectively. Vicksburg’s Republican candidate for mayor staggered under twenty-three indictments. Nor were the dethroned Democrats entirely innocent. An officer in Vicksburg’s clean-government group was caught charging the city $500 to move a safe from the river to the courthouse.
Little matter—it was all the same to most of white Mississippi. Reconstruction was to blame, and that meant the Negroes. Free voting and the shadow of federal bayonets might make them invulnerable to ordinary political tactics, but there were other ways.…
The shifting seasons merged into one long blur of desperate violence. There was the sunny October morning when Thomas Dabney’s daughters heard a hail of shots and watched a Negro’s riderless horse race across the Burleigh lawn … the starlit winter night in Monroe County when carpetbagger A. P. Huggins knelt on a lonely road as the K.K.K. delivered seventy-five lashes with a stirrup strap … the bright March day when the Meridian courthouse erupted in rifle fire and the Radical judge fell dead on his bench.…
“Life is not sacred as it is in the North,” wrote correspondent Charles Nordhoff: Everybody goes armed, and every trifling dispute is ended with the pistol. The respectable people of the State do not discourage the practice of carrying arms as they should, they are astonishingly tolerant of acts which would arouse a Northern community to the utmost, and I believe that to this may be ascribed all that is bad in Mississippi—to an almost total lack of a right opinion; a willingness to see men take the law into their own hands; and, what is still worse, to let them openly defy the laws, without losing, apparently, the respect of the community.
In this atmosphere there was no hope for a man with the “wrong” attitude, whatever his credentials. At Aberdeen the town teacher, Dr. Ebart, had an impeccable southern background, but he favored Negro schools, and that was the end of his job. The pressure was too much. The white Republicans soon melted away. Many crossed over to the Democratic fold; others fled north; only a few stood by the helpless mass of Negroes. The moderates, who might have been a third force, seemed mesmerized by the fury of the blast. “The quiet, sensible and orderly people,” mused a puzzled Charles Nordhoff, “seem to have almost entirely resigned the power and supremacy which belong to them.”
This was the picture by 1875, when, with state and local elections scheduled, the Democrats decided that the time had come formally to recapture control. A skillfully conceived strategy—to be known as the Mississippi Plan and later to be copied throughout the South—took care of the two chief obstacles: the Negro majority and federal bayonets.
“We are determined to have an honest election if we have to stuff the ballot box to get it,” shouted one Democratic leader, and this was only a small part of the plan. Newspaper notices warned Negroes that they would be thrown off their land if they voted the Republican ticket. Democratic “rifle clubs,” usually sporting conspicuous red shirts, drilled endlessly near Negro sections. In Hinds, Lowndes, and other counties, cannon appeared and “salutes” were fired near Republican rallies.
The Negro voters got the message, but the Democrats still faced the danger of federal intervention. The trick here was not to let things go too far, and the Democratic campaign chairman, General J. Z. George, proved a past master at the art of intimidation by indirection. Still, it was a delicate tightrope. The embattled Governor Ames was calling Washington for help, and the slightest slip might bring in the federals.…
A crash of rifle fire scattered the 1,200 Negroes swarming around the Republican barbecue at the little town of Clinton on September 4, 1875. Here and there men fell—not all of them black. Two young white hecklers were cut down by return fire as they scurried from the scene. It seemed that Negroes too could feel strongly about elections. Wholesale shooting began, and for days undeclared war raged around Clinton. On September 8 Governor Ames appealed to General Grant for troops to restore peace and supervise the coming elections. The whole future of Mississippi hung in the balance. A nod from the President, and all of General George’s intricate strategy would fall apart.
Grant looked the other way. “The whole public are tired out with these annual autumnal outbreaks in the South,” the President sighed, “and the great majority are ready now to condemn any interference on the part of the government.” Word was passed to Governor Ames through Attorney General Pierrepont to try harder, to exhaust his own resources before calling on Washington for aid.
It was really not Grant’s fault. The country was indeed tired of Reconstruction, and the President was but echoing the national mood. Most people had never been for Negro civil rights in the first place. Freedom, yes; but that didn’t necessarily mean all the privileges of citizenship. At the end of the war only six northern states let Negroes vote, and in 1867 the District of Columbia rejected Negro suffrage 7,337 to 36. Nor did anyone feel the Fourteenth Amendment had much to do with education. In fact, stalwart Union states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio all had segregated schools. Congress itself set up a segregated school system in Washington only weeks after approving the Fourteenth Amendment.
These feelings were rising to the surface, now that the initial exhilaration of winning the war was over. Other forces were at work too: the implacable Thaddeus Stevens had died … anti-Grant liberals were happy to attack everything about the Administration, including Reconstruction … northern investors were anxious to resume “normal” relations with the South … the nation’s eyes were turning to fresh, exciting visions in the Far West.
The new mood showed itself in various ways. Congress had indeed passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (protecting the Negro in public places like trains and restaurants), but it was the dying gasp of a lame-duck session. Besides, it was a shaky victory. A school integration provision had been defeated; also a “force bill” giving the measure teeth. Even more significant, the Supreme Court was now nibbling away at the earlier Reconstruction Acts. And in the background came a steady chorus from the press, “Let the South solve its own problems.” The President understood and gave the nation its way.
The Silver Cornet Band led the Jackson victory parade to General George’s house on election night, November 2, 1875. The returns were rolling in, and huge Democratic majorities were piling up: Morton, 233 to 17 … Deasonville, 181 to 0 … Yazoo County, 4,052 to 7. In the end the Democrats carried sixty-two of the state’s seventy-four counties. In the time-honored fashion of all political leaders everywhere, General George gave full credit to the rank and file “for the redemption of our common mother, Mississippi.” Governor Ames was a practical man. Exactly 146 days later, in exchange for the withdrawal by Democrats of a set of impeachment charges, he resigned his office, packed his bags, and left the state forever. In the word of the times, Mississippi had been “redeemed.”
To Mississippi’s Negroes redemption meant a loss of power but not the trappings. The men now running the state came from the old cotton-planting gentry, who got along well with their former slaves. Some of these leaders, like Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, were far more interested in corporation law than in eight-cent cotton, but they still had a tradition of noblesse oblige and gave the Negroes considerable leeway—as long as they were “good.”
This arrangement was further cemented by a sort of gentlemen’s agreement with Washington after the presidential election of 1876. The South accepted Hayes’ dubious claims to the Presidency, and in return the Republicans adopted Grant’s hands-off attitude as the new administration line. The last troops were withdrawn, and the old Confederacy was left free to work out its own problems. But at the same time it was always understood that the Negroes would retain at least their surface gains. The redemption leaders happily agreed. In fact, the Jackson Clarion had accepted the obligation on the very morning after the great 1875 victory. Observing that Negroes had helped make the triumph possible, the paper declared that the state must now “carry out in good faith the pledges of equal and even justice to them and theirs in which they placed their confidence.”
So the Negroes continued to vote and often held minor offices. Nor were they barred from most public places. The two races drank at the same bars and ate at the same restaurants, though at separate tables. In Jackson, Angelo’s Hall echoed with Negro laughter one week, white the next. And when life was done, both races could rest together in Greenwood Cemetery.
With the Negro’s role settled, Mississippi’s redemption government launched a massive economy wave. The conservative landowning leaders had been hit hardest by the staggering taxes of Reconstruction, and now they were determined to end all that. State expenditures were slashed from $1,430,000 in 1875 to $518,000 in 1876. Teachers’ salaries alone fell from $55.47 a month in 1875 to $29.19 the following year.
In a way it was all justifiable. Mississippi remained wretchedly poor. In 1877 the state’s per capita wealth was only $286, compared to a $1,086 average in the northern states. Even as late as 1890 there were only forty-six banks in the state, with combined cash assets of but $635,000. The war had wiped out Mississippi, and there just seemed no way to get going again. In those days the idea of federal recovery aid was unknown—between 1865 and 1875 Washington spent 21 million dollars on public works in Massachusetts and New York, only $185,000 in Mississippi and Arkansas.
Still, whatever the justification, Mississippi paid a high price for her sweeping economies. Letting roads disintegrate meant even more stagnant communities. Appropriating merely $5,392 a year for health meant the end of nearly all services. Spending only $2 a head on schoolchildren (against $20 in Massachusetts) meant mounting illiteracy and a new generation utterly untrained to advance in life.
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.”
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.
“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.
Nor did “more time” mean more money for Negro education. In 1886 Negro teachers averaged $27.40 a month; in 1939 the figure was $28—a gain of 60 cents. During the forties, take-home pay increased, but so did the gap between the numbers of Negro and white teachers. The ratio stood at three to two in 1890, but at 2.5 to 1 in 1950. In 1900 the state spent three times as much on a white student as it did on a Negro; in 1950 the margin was the same.
Moreover, the quality of Negro education fell steadily behind. In 1945 half the teachers in colored schools still hadn’t been through high school. There were only seven regionally accredited Negro high schools in the whole state. A Negro boy had less than one chance in twenty of going to a school where he could learn a foreign language.
“More time” was equally meaningless on jobs. In 1902 a Negro church in Jackson listed members in a wide range of interesting occupations—a bakery owner, a fashionable dress designer, a representative of tailoring firms, numerous painters and craftsmen. William H. Smallwood, a Negro, was Jackson’s leading expert on leases and deeds in the eighties. In 1905 Greenville listed numerous Negro doctors, lawyers, bookstore owners, cotton samplers. By 1950 all this was over. White workers had crowded out Negroes and monopolized the field. After World War II Greenville experimented with an imaginative plan for training Negro auto mechanics, but the results were disappointing. It proved impossible to place them.
In social life “more time” also found the Negro drifting back. In the 1890’s prominent Negroes like J. R. Lynch had lived on Capitol Street, not far from General George himself. By 1950 this was unheard of. All the time an elaborate system of social taboos continued to multiply, putting the Negro more firmly in his place—don’t shake hands with one … don’t let one in the front door … and never, never call one “Mr.” or “Mrs.”
And yet many Mississippians remained very fond of the Negro. “It is an historic fact,” declared Senator James Eastland, “that the Southern white people are the best friends he has ever had.” An overstatement, but still it was true that countless white people took care of Negroes when they were sick, fed them when they were hungry, and lent them money when they were broke.
The picture wasn’t all that rosy. Even those whites who felt most deeply the spirit of noblesse oblige had to trim their sails during hard times. And more and more whites didn’t have the spirit at all, as lumbering and other industries crowded out the plantation tradition. In any case, the Negro had to be “good” and “know his place.” Still, it was often a happy relationship, and to most visitors the mystery was how so many white people could be so devoted to the Negro and at the same time so firmly hold him down.
A Clarksdale housewife inadvertently supplied an “answer,” while trying to set a newcomer straight. “People up North,” she explained, “just don’t realize all the things we do for Negroes. We don’t hate them at all. We’re always untangling their problems—which is anything but easy, for after all they’re animals, simply animals.” A farmer from Calhoun County put it a little more bluntly: “The best way to understand how people here feel is to put it the way my daddy put it: the nigger has no soul. He is like a duck, a chicken, or a mule. He just hasn’t got a soul.” Certainly not all people in Mississippi felt this way, but a surprisingly large number—probably a majority—unconsciously agreed with the red-neck logger who summed it all up: “Let’s face it; the nigger is a high-class beast.”
Once this curious premise was accepted—that the Negro was something less than a real person—everything fell into place. It explained why the people of Marks were so proud of the paved streets in the Negro section—something that might elsewhere be taken for granted. It explained why a Delta housewife felt she was making a major concession when she said she was willing to let her cook use her bomb shelter in the event of nuclear war. It explained why a different standard of justice was meted out to Negroes—lenience when the matter was between Negroes, harsh treatment when a white was involved. And, of course, it explained the whole strange mixture of kindness and meanness. A man might feel kindly toward a “duck, a chicken, or a mule,” but he certainly wouldn’t want to vote with one or send his child to school with one.
Above all, the notion that the Negro was subhuman explained white Mississippi’s deepest fear and obsession: “the mongrelization of the race.” If a man really believed a Negro was “like a duck, a chicken or a mule,” he understandably didn’t want his daughter to marry one. And, paradoxically enough, he seemed sure she might. The idea of the inevitable progression was still at work: incidental contact at school must lead to social contact outside, which in turn must lead to mixed marriages and inferior offspring.
It did no good to point out that, even assuming any basis for such weird racial theories, all the experience of integrated schools elsewhere indicated that there would be no significant trend to intermarriage. The standard answer: Why take any chances? “We just don’t want any of those black babies with blue eyes,” declared a plantation manager near Perthshire.
Nor did it do any good to suggest that Negroes might want to go to integrated schools simply to get a better education. The average Mississippian was convinced that sex was all “they” thought about. Social equality still meant what Thomas Nelson Page said in 1904: “To the ignorant and brutal young Negro, it signifies but one thing: the opportunity to enjoy, equally with the white man, the privilege of cohabiting with white women.”
And the feeling was compounded by a constant, ceaseless fear of Negro rape. Visitors couldn’t hope to understand how deeply this gnawed, for it stemmed from a combination of unique, mysterious forces: the dread of being overwhelmed, the sanctity of Southern Womanhood, whispered superstitions of Negro sexual prowess. Actually, there was little danger. As that astute observer William J. Cash remarked, a southern white woman had less chance of being raped by a Negro than of being struck by lightning. Yet there were cases, and the barest hint was enough to send most Mississippians racing to man the barriers of total segregation.
Statistics seemed to back up the white state of mind. The Negroes did indeed have a far higher crime rate. Although they constituted only forty-five per cent of the population by 1950, they committed seventy-five per cent of the state’s crimes. But was this a basic quality or a symptom of something else? There was almost an invitation to lawlessness in a legal system that saw a Negro in Sunflower County fire five shots at another and get off with a $10 fine.
White Mississippians also had reason to worry about Negro sexual customs. Some twenty-five per cent of colored births were illegitimate; the rate of venereal disease among Negroes was fifteen times that among whites. Yet here too the question arose, was this inherent or more likely a matter of living conditions? After all, as state judge Tom Brady explained, “We have not and do not punish the Negro—except in rare instances—for desertion, illegitimacy, or bigamy.” With the brakes off, no wonder the girls’ basketball coach at a Calhoun County Negro high school once saw his season ruined because most members of the team were pregnant.
The whites also pointed out that Negro children did far worse at school. In 1949, for instance, when a group of colored pupils took the Metropolitan Achievement Test in Sunflower County, they scored two full grades behind the white norms. But it happens that most of the Negro children had no desks; many sat on the floor; some had teachers who couldn’t do fractions; and all belonged to a school system that the University of Mississippi’s Bureau of Educational Research labelled “a dreary spectacle.”
Mississippi, of course, was not alone in this pattern of white and Negro relationships. There were similarities in all the southern states, and, for that matter, in the rest of the country too. Still, there were differences—differences that by 1950 made Mississippi a special case. One obvious difference lay in population. In 1950 Mississippi was forty-five per cent Negro—the highest percentage in the country. True, the figure was slipping—there were some 87,000 fewer Negroes than in 1940—but the percentage was still high compared to other states. Moreover, in some parts of Mississippi the whites were far outnumbered. Tunica County, for instance, had 17,700 Negroes, only 3,900 whites. And there was always the past—those fearful days when a defeated, shattered, white minority lived in constant dread of an untrained but politically powerful Negro majority. Mississippians had long memories, and the specter of those times lingered on.
A more subtle but more important difference was the state’s special brand of poverty. In 1950 Mississippi was easily the poorest in the Union. Her citizens had only half the per capita income enjoyed by the rest of the country. Both races suffered—in Issaquena County even the whites averaged only $967 a year. The state’s Agriculture and Industry Board made valiant efforts to bring in new business, but its very sales pitch hinged on conditions remaining depressed. One brochure boasted, “There are available at least two applicants for each new job offered.” The battle to hold the few advantages left made the whites more determined to hold the line against any sign of Negro advance.
Still another distinction was the state’s low level of education. Poor people can’t afford the best schools, and Mississippi was no exception. In 1950 the state paid the lowest faculty salaries in the Southeast, and the ablest teachers naturally drifted elsewhere. Poverty also meant that many people couldn’t afford to go to school at all—half of all the state’s adults had only eight years’ exposure. Nor was low Negro attendance by any means the whole explanation for that low figure: when only white adults were considered, the average was less than ten years. The significance of all this emerged in many ways. Mississippi had the fewest number of patents for its population of any state in the Union … the fewest doctors and nurses … the next-to-smallest number of dentists … the poorest-trained teachers. There was, in short, a striking lack of educated leadership.
Life in Mississippi also had a stagnant quality that made the state a special case. Jackson, Greenville, the Gulf Coast, might be thriving, but their shiny motels were deceptive. Far more meaningful were the scores of sleepy little towns—and even counties—quietly withering away. In 1950 county seats like Mayersville, Carrollton, and Pittsboro had fewer people than at any time since 1900; Carroll, Jefferson, and Claiborne counties, fewer than in 1840. The downward trend had been going on for some time, but the new mechanical cotton-picker gave it an extra shove. The machine was a godsend to the big plantations, but it doomed thousands of field hands and dirt farmers and the whole network of stores and suppliers that kept them going. Some ten people were leaving Mississippi for every one person coming in; those departing included seventy-five per cent of the state’s college graduates.
The strange emptiness of Mississippi gave the place an air of isolation that was another of its special qualities. Even Alaska had a greater percentage of its population in urban areas. There were no really large cities—in 1950 the capital and largest city, Jackson, was still under 100,000. Nor was there any of the culture that serves as a link with the outside world. Jackson’s only bookstore was run by the Baptist Church; its titles were limited for the most part to religious topics. Elsewhere there wasn’t even that—Oxford, the state’s center of learning, had no regular bookstores at all. Nor were there adequate libraries to fill the gap. Twenty-seven counties had no library that met any standards whatsoever. As a result, Mississippi inevitably took little interest in the rest of America, and by 1950 the rest of America took little interest in her. Poverty and isolation had done their work. In fact, the last major presidential candidate who had bothered to visit the state was Henry Clay.
All this led to a uniquely self-contained existence; and that, in turn, became one more difference that set Mississippi apart from the rest of the Union. In the words of a native, “Mississippi is not a state but a club.” Everybody seemed to know everybody else. Doors always seemed open—all a visitor needed was a name that clicked. Personal relationships were the key.
This small world gave Mississippians certain virtues fast disappearing from the rest of the world. People were extraordinarily courteous to one another and never seemed particularly hurried. A man would go ten miles out of his way to show a stranger the right road. But by the same token, everybody knew exactly what everybody else was doing. A seventy-mile drive through the Delta elicited the most minute details about the homes along the way: this man had a new brown dog … that man sold a field last week … that family was fighting with the insurance adjuster.
The tendency to conform was crushing. In far more cases than elsewhere, men wore the same necktie (dark), drove the same cars (cream-colored), lived for the same football games (Ole Miss vs. LSU), and above all belonged to the same party (Democratic). The state’s allegiance was never better expressed than in 1890, when Chancellor Edward Mayer of the University of Mississippi declared, “I have never failed to vote Democratic, I have never scratched a ticket, and I would not, no matter whom the party might nominate for its candidate.” The New Deal did indeed strain the allegiance, but characteristically Mississippi still conformed at the moment of truth—Election Day. When the state finally strayed from the fold in 1948, the rationalization developed that Mississippi was still holding to the true faith; it was the rest of the Democrats who had bolted away.
The more postwar America changed, the more Mississippi retreated into its own self-contained little world. Bypassed in the march of events, the state saw little connection between itself and all the strange new things going on—the UN, Marshall Plan, NATO, welfare measures at home. All this meant only more centralized government, and the people were in no mood for that—states’ rights were the very heart of the South’s solution to the race problem. Bristling at the very thought, Mississippi became increasingly suspicious of “outside interference” and increasingly proud of its own way of life. Once again thoughts turned to the glorious past.…
“For any Southern boy fourteen years old,” wrote Mississippi’s own William Faulkner, “not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods … and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet.”
It might only be added that in the Mississippi of 1950 the daydream was not limited to fourteen-year-old boys. Every age lived with the fantasy. The state officially observed Confederate Memorial Day, Lee’s and Jefferson Davis’ birthdays … while studiously ignoring Lincoln’s and the national Memorial Day. Jackson boasted its Rebel Concrete Company, Rebel Garment Company, Rebel Roofing & Metal Company. Hattiesburg had its Rebel Theatre, Oxford its Rebel Cosmetology College. Schoolboys loved to dress up in Confederate uniforms … older men wistfully told how it all might have been different if only Pemberton had held at Champion Hill. (“It still breaks my heart when I think of it,” one confessed.) Confederate flags hung from porches, windows, staffs, all over the state; and in case anyone ever needed reminding, there was always the reproachful gaze of the noble stone soldier who stood atop the Confederate monument in every courthouse square.…
This was the Mississippi of 1950, when a young Negro named James H. Meredith left the state in search of a better chance in life. It was the Mississippi of 1961 when he returned to fight for equality and later entered the all-white university after a night of bloody riot. It is the Mississippi of today—of Medgar Evers shot in ambush, of civil-rights workers lynched at night—and it will be the Mississippi of tomorrow, until, with patience and persistence, the rest of the country helps bring a frightened, isolated, and intensely proud people back into the Union.