Mississippi Constitution Disfranchises Black Voters Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1890, Mississippi adopted a new state constitution. The explicit purpose of the new document was to prevent as many African American Mississippians as possible from voting, a goal accomplished through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures aimed to accomplish racial discrimination without violating the letter of the Fifteenth Amendment.

Summary of Event

In the years following Reconstruction, Reconstruction;in Mississippi[Mississippi] Mississippi and South Carolina had the largest black populations in the United States. In 1890, fifty-seven of every hundred Mississippians were black. The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ratified in 1870) provided that no state could deny the right to vote on account of race; thus, Mississippi had a large black electorate. During the early 1870’s, Mississippi voters elected hundreds of black officeholders, including members of Congress, state legislators, sheriffs, county clerks, and justices of the peace. During the mid-1870’s, white Democrats launched a counteroffensive, using threats, violence, and fraud to neutralize the African American vote. After 1875, very few black men held office in Mississippi. African Americans;in Mississippi[Mississippi] Mississippi;constitutions Mississippi;African Americans State constitutions;Mississippi Fifteenth Amendment;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Voting rights;in Mississippi[Mississippi] [kw]Mississippi Constitution Disfranchises Black Voters (1890) [kw]Constitution Disfranchises Black Voters, Mississippi (1890) [kw]Disfranchises Black Voters, Mississippi Constitution (1890) [kw]Black Voters, Mississippi Constitution Disfranchises (1890) [kw]Voters, Mississippi Constitution Disfranchises Black (1890) African Americans;in Mississippi[Mississippi] Mississippi;constitutions Mississippi;African Americans State constitutions;Mississippi Fifteenth Amendment;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Voting rights;in Mississippi[Mississippi] [g]United States;1890: Mississippi Constitution Disfranchises Black Voters[5680] [c]Government and politics;1890: Mississippi Constitution Disfranchises Black Voters[5680] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;1890: Mississippi Constitution Disfranchises Black Voters[5680] [c]Civil rights and liberties;1890: Mississippi Constitution Disfranchises Black Voters[5680] [c]Social issues and reform;1890: Mississippi Constitution Disfranchises Black Voters[5680] Calhoon, Solomon S. George, James Montgomery, Isaiah T. Stone, John M. Walthall, Edward C.

By the late 1880’s, many politicians in Mississippi were calling for a convention to write a new constitution for the state. They complained that although only a small number of African Americans were voting, this small number could prove decisive in close elections. Many white leaders feared that black votes could decide close elections and worked toward a new constitution with provisions that effectively would disfranchise black voters. It would be difficult to draft such provisions, however, without running afoul of the Fifteenth Amendment.

The state’s two senators illustrated the divisions of opinion that were so widespread among white Mississippians. Senator Edward C. Walthall Walthall, Edward C. argued against a constitutional convention, warning that it would only excite political passions for no good purpose. He felt certain there was no way to eliminate black political participation without violating the Fifteenth Amendment and that, if Mississippi made such an attempt, the U.S. government would show new interest in enforcing African American voting rights. On the other hand, Senator James George George, James attacked the old constitution, claiming that it had been drafted by carpetbaggers "Carpetbaggers"[Carpetbaggers] and ignorant former slaves. George urged that the “best citizens” should now take the opportunity to draft a new state constitution. He warned that black voting could revive unless the state took measures to reduce the black electorate by provisions of the state’s highest law.

A bill calling a constitutional convention passed both houses of the state legislature in 1888, but Governor Robert Lowry Lowry, Robert vetoed it, warning that it was better to accept the state’s existing problems than to run the risk of creating new ones by tampering with the state’s constitution. Two years later, a similar bill passed both houses of the legislature, and the new governor, John M. Stone Stone, John M. , signed the law. Election of delegates was set for July 29, 1890. The voters would elect 134 delegates, 14 of them from the state at large, and the rest apportioned among the counties.

The state’s weak Republican Party decided not to field a slate of candidates for at-large delegates. In heavily black Bolivar County, Republicans did offer a local delegate slate with one black and one white candidate. In Jasper County, the white Republican candidate for delegate, F. M. B. “Marsh” Cook Cook, F. M. B. “Marsh” , was assassinated while riding alone on a country road. In two black-majority counties, the Democrats allowed white conservative Republicans onto their candidate slates. In several counties, Democrats split into two factions and offered the voters a choice of two Democratic tickets. As it turned out, the constitutional convention was made up almost exclusively of white Democrats. The membership included only three Republicans, three delegates elected as independents, and one member of an agrarian third party. Only one of the 134 delegates was black: Isaiah T. Montgomery Montgomery, Isaiah T. of Bolivar County.

Delegates elected the conservative lawyer Solomon S. Calhoon Calhoon, Solomon S. as president of the convention and immediately set about their work. Convention members had no shortage of ideas on how to limit the suffrage almost exclusively to whites without violating the Fifteenth Amendment. Some suggested that voters must own land, which few African Americans in Mississippi did. Others favored educational tests, since African Americans, only a generation removed from slavery, had had fewer educational opportunities than whites and therefore were often illiterate.

As finally devised, the Mississippi plan for disfranchisement had a number of parts, the most important of which were a literacy test and a poll tax. Under the literacy test, the would-be voter must either be able to read or to explain a part of the state constitution when it was read to him. This latter provision, the so-called “understanding clause,” was included as a loophole for illiterate whites. Delegates knew that voting registrars could give easy questions to white applicants and exceedingly difficult ones to African Americans. The poll tax provision stated that a person must pay a poll tax of at least two dollars per year, for at least two years in succession, in order to qualify to vote. The voter would have to pay these taxes well in advance of the election and keep the receipt. The tax was quite burdensome in a state where tenant farmers Mississippi;tenant farmers often earned less than fifty dollars in cash per year. Because Mississippi’s African Americans were often tenant farmers, poorer than their white counterparts, it was thought they would give up the right to vote rather than pay this new tax.

In a notable speech, the black Republican delegate, Isaiah T. Montgomery Montgomery, Isaiah T. , announced that he would vote for these new suffrage provisions. He noted that race relations in the state had grown tense and that black political participation in the state had often led whites to react violently. His hope now, Montgomery explained, was that black disfranchisement would improve race relations and as the years passed, perhaps more African Americans would be permitted to vote. The new constitution passed the convention with only eight dissenting votes; it was not submitted to the voters for their ratification.

Significance

The new suffrage provisions went into effect just before the 1892 elections. The new voter registration requirements disfranchised the great majority of African Americans in the state; it also resulted in the disfranchisement of about fifty-two thousand whites. The new registration resulted in a list of seventy thousand white voters and only nine thousand African American voters. The predominantly black state Republican Party had won 26 percent of the vote for its presidential candidate in 1888; after the new registration, in 1892, the Republican standard-bearer won less than 3 percent.

Under its 1890 constitution. Mississippi had an almost exclusively white electorate for three-quarters of a century. This constitution served as a model for other southern states, which eagerly copied the literacy test, the understanding clause, and the poll tax into their state constitutions. Only after passage of new laws by the U.S. Congress in 1964 and 1965 would African American voters again make their strength felt in southern elections.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cresswell, Stephen. Multiparty Politics in Mississippi, 1877-1902. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. Chapter 4 discusses the drafting of the 1890 constitution and its role in limiting the success of the Republican and Populist parties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Robert P., Jr., ed. Equal Protection and the African American Constitutional Experience: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. Includes the Mississippi Constitution of 1890, as well as many other relevant contemporary primary source documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirwan, Albert D. Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876-1925. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1951. Although dated, this remains the basic political history for the period before, during, and after the state’s 1890 constitutional convention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kousser, J. Morgan. The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974. Detailed explanation of how new constitutions in Mississippi and other southern states led to a homogeneous electorate, essentially a small clique of middle-class whites.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McLemore, Richard Aubrey, ed. A History of Mississippi. Hattiesburg: University and College Press of Mississippi, 1973. Chapter 22, written by former governor James P. Coleman, provides a narrative history of the 1890 constitutional convention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stone, James H. “A Note on Voter Registration Under the Mississippi Understanding Clause, 1892.” Journal of Southern History 38 (1972): 293-296. Argues that the understanding clause was not a grossly unfair instrument of racial discrimination, as is often charged. Lays the blame for disfranchisement chiefly on the poll tax.

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Reconstruction of the South

Congress Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau

Mississippi Enacts First Post-Civil War Black Code

Thirteenth Amendment Is Ratified

Civil Rights Act of 1866

Fourteenth Amendment Is Ratified

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Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Booker T. Washington. African Americans;in Mississippi[Mississippi] Mississippi;constitutions Mississippi;African Americans State constitutions;Mississippi Fifteenth Amendment;and Reconstruction[Reconstruction] Voting rights;in Mississippi[Mississippi]

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