A Mississippi Governor Opposes Black Education Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

By the end of the nineteenth century, an issue had developed in the post-Reconstruction South over the rights of black Americans to receive a quality public school education. Governor James K. Vardaman of Mississippi, in office from 1904 to 1908, argued vehemently against such a policy, expressing his unapologetic belief that blacks were morally and socially inferior to whites. He also opposed African Americans voting, running for public office, and exercising other rights legally afforded to them after the Civil War, on the basis of what he believed to be their propensity for criminal and otherwise corrupt behavior.

Summary Overview

By the end of the nineteenth century, an issue had developed in the post-Reconstruction South over the rights of black Americans to receive a quality public school education. Governor James K. Vardaman of Mississippi, in office from 1904 to 1908, argued vehemently against such a policy, expressing his unapologetic belief that blacks were morally and socially inferior to whites. He also opposed African Americans voting, running for public office, and exercising other rights legally afforded to them after the Civil War, on the basis of what he believed to be their propensity for criminal and otherwise corrupt behavior.

Defining Moment

By the latter nineteenth century, the Southern states–whose rabid defense of slavery helped fuel the Civil War–saw black political empowerment thrust upon them by the federally imposed Reconstruction program. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, for example, granted citizenship to former slaves and gave them the right to vote and hold elected office. However, the Reconstruction era had come to a formal close in 1877, with the withdrawal of the last federal troops from the South, and despite the nominal political equality given to black Americans, Southern white racists quickly returned to political power and began systematically undermining the rights of black Southerners.

During the post-Reconstruction era, a number of fronts opened in the struggle for black equality in these states. One area was the aforementioned power to vote. To be sure, the restored power of white leaders (particularly Democrats) could not force the repeal of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, but the imposition of poll taxes and other obstructions kept black Southerners away from the polls. Jim Crow laws imposed legal segregation, and in 1896, the US Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” facilities in public transportation were constitutional.

In the public education arena, a similar struggle was taking place. White leaders actively opposed the idea of providing a public education–one that was comparable to that offered to white children–to black children. Even some of the South’s most progressive education leaders called for the creation of a special curriculum that addressed the particular needs of a race perceived by many as fit for little more than manual labor. Prevailing attitudes in the United States (in the North as well as in the South) held that blacks were socially and morally inferior to whites. Statistics unfortunately supported this sentiment in the minds of many–crime rates among African Americans were significantly higher than those among whites, particularly in the South. Even activists, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, whose lifelong pursuit of black equality included the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), were troubled by the growing issues of black illiteracy and crime. White Southern leaders, using these statistics and with popular support, were able to continue the fight against black public education.

In Mississippi, the state’s first primary election in 1904 sent Vardaman into the governor’s office. Vardaman, a Democrat, was well known as a progressive, advocating for increased government regulation of large corporations and pursuing laws prohibiting child labor. However, he was also an unabashed and outspoken racist, particularly with regard to African Americans. Complaining that education was “ruining our Negroes,” he closed black public schools in Mississippi one month after his election. He also took out an editorial in Leslie’s Weekly expressing his views on black public education.

Author Biography

James Kimble Vardaman was born on July 26, 1861, in Jackson County, Texas, where his family had moved from Mississippi in the 1850s. In 1868, he and his family moved back to Mississippi, and he was raised in Yalobusha County, where he received his public school education. He studied law while living with an uncle in Carrollton and gained admittance to the Mississippi bar in 1882. Thereafter, he practiced law in Winona while also editing a number of newspapers. Vardaman served in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1890 to 1896 and later served as an officer in the Spanish-American War. He served one four-year term as governor from 1904 to 1908 (during which he was dubbed the “White Chief”), and was then elected to the US Senate, serving from 1913 to 1919; he actively opposed US involvement in World War I, and thus lost his reelection bid. He retired to Alabama and died on June 25, 1935.

Document Analysis

Vardaman’s comments stem from his perception that the “race question” was slowly being answered in a way that validated the notion of white superiority over black Americans. Vardaman expresses “hope” that, in spite of the largely ineffectual policies of the Reconstruction era, the United States was starting to embrace the truth: that black Americans simply could not exist on equal social or political footing with white Americans. More than a century earlier, he says, Thomas Jefferson made such a point, and Abraham Lincoln made a similar argument half a century later. Now, he says, state governments (such as Maryland, which was in the process of sending a black disenfranchisement referendum to the voters) were starting to follow suit by recognizing the “truth” about the mental and moral limitations of blacks.

Vardaman speaks in scathing, unapologetically racist terms: he says that blacks–whether educated, like prominent activist Booker T. Washington, or illiterate, like the young man who shines Vardaman’s shoes every day–are all equally unworthy of the great social responsibility of voting, for example. Some may call his comments prejudiced, he admits, but he states that history is on his side: the Anglo-Saxon (white) race, he says, is responsible for every major advance in literature, technology, and government in history. If blacks were to replace the “order, good government, progress, and general prosperity” associated with white rule, Vardaman states, the country would fall into a state of demoralization and decay.

Vardaman cites as his evidence crime statistics reported by two university professors. These statistics, he says, show that black men are more likely to be involved in criminal activity as free men than they were as slaves. He even states that educated black men are more “criminal” than illiterate black men. He further cites a study from the journal North American Review, which reports that African Americans in New England, about three-quarters of whom are literate, are four times as likely to commit crime as blacks in the South, where only about one-third are literate.

Having wasted millions of dollars on the Reconstruction effort to educate and empower blacks, government should change course, Vardaman argues. He says it is time to repeal the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which made the “mistake” of giving African Americans “the right to pollute politics.” After all, Southern states had, by this time, largely done away with the substance of these amendments, barring blacks from the political process, and it was now time to allow the popular vote to remove these amendments from the Constitution. At the same time, blacks should be stripped of the right to receive an equitable public education and take part in government, Vardaman concludes, and the state of Mississippi should invest its money in improving rural white schools so the future white leaders of the state would have the best education possible.

Essential Themes

Although Governor Vardaman states that he thinks black citizens should have the right to the pursuit of happiness and to enjoy the fruits of their labor, he is also clear that black Americans should understand their status as “unfit to perform any other function in the economy of the world than that of a servant or menial.” Vardaman is unrepentant in his belief that blacks are the inferior race in comparison to whites, and that they should be encouraged to remain in positions of virtual servitude.

He criticizes the efforts of civil rights activists and others to educate black children and give black Americans the right to vote. Vardaman believes that the inferior status of black people was given to them by God and has been validated throughout human history. Thus, he says, the mistakes of the Reconstruction era–particularly black citizenship and suffrage–were overdue for correction.

Vardaman cites the success of discriminatory policies (such as disenfranchisement) throughout the South as proof that more Americans are embracing the “truth” about what he dubbed the “race question.” Still, there remained a push for equality, especially through the public school system. Vardaman dismisses activists who continued the call for racial equality, returning to what he saw as the fundamental truth about blacks: that they should be socially subordinate to whites.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Dean, Edward Ayers, and Hugh P. Kelley. The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
  • Holland, Antonio Frederick. Nathan B. Young and the Struggle over Black Higher Education. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2006. Print.
  • Lambert, Frank. The Battle of Ole Miss: Civil Rights v. States Rights. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
  • Muhammad, Khalil Gibran. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2010. Print.
  • Sansing, David. “James Kimble Vardaman: Thirty-Sixth Governor of Mississippi: 1904–1908.” Mississippi History Now. Mississippi Historical Society, Jan. 2004. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.
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