State constitution was designed to discriminate

By LUTHER MUNFORD,

In a time when "disenfranchisement" has again become an issue, Dorothy Overstreet Pratt's new book, "Sowing the Wind/ The Mississippi Constitution of 1890," merits attention.

The delegates to that Convention worked to find ways to disenfranchise black voters using methods that did not expressly rely on race. They understood that the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would not allow them to prohibit black voting as such. So they sought other means to achieve that goal, even though African-Americans had never made up more than 25 percent of the state legislature.

They had illegally prevented blacks from voting since 1876. After the Civil War, Union troops occupied the south and protected black voters. But in 1876, as the federal presence pulled back, James Z. George organized Democratic "clubs" that systematically employed "ballot stuffing and bulldozing" to defeat Republican candidates favored by black voters. Over a 14-year period, white mobs slaughtered blacks who attempted to mount political events, most notably in Meridian, Clinton and Greenwood. The exact number of African-Americans killed is unknown, but in each case was thought to be more than 20.

The delegates also feared an effort by Congressional Republicans to legislate federal control over Congressional elections. Stopping the fraud would help block that legislation. They also worried about their moral legacy. So they seized on perceived differences between black and white in wealth, education, mobility and types of criminal behavior. It was estimated that the illiteracy rate for whites was then 11 percent and, for African Americans, 76 percent.

Pratt, a retired history professor who grew up in Jackson, ably summarizes the imaginative schemes the delegates considered. One would have given additional votes to landowners, or even the descendants of landowners. Another would have afforded the right to vote to women with property, but the vote would be cast by the husband.

Eventually they adopted a variety of other measures. One was to replace pre-printed ballots prepared by parties with the Australian, or secret ballot, which required that the voter be able to read it. Another was the payment of poll tax. To this they added residency requirements, and excluded those who had been convicted of burglary, theft, bigamy and certain other crimes.

Their most controversial choice, attributed to George, was the "Understanding Clause," which required that a voter be able to read any section of the constitution or understand it when read to him. In other words, it allowed voting by illiterates the registrar deemed intelligent, but excluded illiterates whom the registrar deemed incapable of understanding. A strict literacy requirement would have disenfranchised poor whites. This clause allowed the registrar to enfranchise them.

 

With virtual unanimity, the state's newspapers — including the Baptist Record — condemned the Understanding Clause because of the fraud it encouraged. But the convention adopted it anyway.

In the end, the convention simply "promulgated" the new constitution without requiring approval by the state's voters. Many of them were, after all, unlikely to approve their loss of the right to vote. The result: In 1892, 68 percent of adult male whites were registered to vote, while only 6 percent of adult male African Americans were registered. Having "sown the wind," our state then "reaped the whirlwind" of racial division and discrimination.

Pratt's book goes far beyond the confines of the convention. She explains what one delegate called the "14 years of fraud exuding nausea" that led up to it. She delves into the stories of the state's African American leaders, including Blanche Bruce and John Roy Lynch who lived in D.C. and James Hill and Isaiah Montgomery in Mississippi. Montgomery, the only black delegate to the convention, founded Mound Bayou and was believed to be the richest African American in the country. He voted in favor of the constitution, an act she attributes to pragmatism and, perhaps, class bias.

She also covers an ensuing Congressional debate in which George, a U.S. Senator, defended the constitution as a document which only disenfranchised the "ignorant barbarians" who had previously controlled the state.

In the early 20th century, our state placed George's statue in the halls of Congress to represent our state. Readers of Pratt's book will inevitably question why it should remain there now that the cause he championed has been discredited.

Finally, she recounts the remarkable story of Cornelius Jones, the first African American lawyer to argue a case in the U.S. Supreme Court. He represented black defendants convicted of murder. He claimed the 1890 constitution had the discriminatory and unconstitutional effect of excluding African Americans from grand juries because only voters could serve on grand juries. In 1895, the Supreme Court rejected his claim, but his attack on grand jury segregation was vindicated in 1979 in a case from another state.

Luther Munford is a Northsider.

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