This image, by Muriel Barrow Bell, depicts an African-American home in the South during 1939. At the time, Bell was working for the Georgia Writer’s Project, Savannah Unit. Original photo maintained at the Library of Congress; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ds-00252.
WARNING: THIS CHAPTER CONTAINS QUOTES FROM RACE-BAITING POLITICIANS WHO PASSED LAWS TO PREVENT AFRICAN-AMERICANS FROM VOTING. THEIR LANGUAGE - USED IN THE LATE 19TH and EARLY 20TH CENTURIES - IS OFFENSIVE. PROCEED WITH CAUTION.
Reconstruction of the South, after the Civil War, meant more than reuniting States which had once split apart. America also had to find a way to integrate millions of people into a slave-free society.
New amendments to the U.S. Constitution allowed black men to vote, and thousands of former slaves took advantage of their new rights. In his famous "Atlanta Compromise" speech - delivered on September 18, 1895 - Booker T. Washington had urged people of color to "cast down your bucket where you are."
By 1896, more than 130,000 African-Americans were registered voters just in Louisiana. Then ... something happened to reverse that progress.
Near the end of the 19th century, Mississippi's political leaders wanted to change the State's constitution. The real purpose of the revised version - known as the "Second Mississippi Plan" - was acknowledged by a future governor, James Kimble Vardaman:
There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. [Mississippi's constitutional convention] was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics; not the "ignorant and vicious," as some of those apologists would have you believe, but the nigger ... Let the world know it just as it is. (James K. Vardaman quoted by David H. Jackson, Jr., in Booker T. Washington and the Struggle Against White Supremacy - The Southern Educational Tours, 1908-1912, at page 16.)
The new Constitution, as adopted by the "Magnolia State," set the standard for other segregated states. Imposing educational requirements on potential voters - to become a "qualified elector" one had to either read, or interpret, the state's Constitution - Mississippi’s political leaders would now be able to keep blacks - including educated individuals with PhDs - away from the ballot box.
Excluding all African-Americans from debating the issue at the convention - except for Isaiah Montgomery who agreed to support the initiative - the bill sailed through Mississippi’s legislature. The bill became the Constitution of 1890, but the new law was challenged.
When the challenging case - called Williams v Mississippi - reached the U.S. Supreme Court, nine Justices unanimously concluded the law was constitutional. Since it applied equally to all potential voters - all of whom had to read or interpret Mississippi's Constitution - it did not discriminate between people of color, they said.
The problem, however, was not the language of the law. The problem was its application. No drafter, or supporter, had ever intended that it would be equally applied to all races.
As African-Americans lined-up to register, many were not even processed. Those who were faced tough questioning by screeners whose job was to deny their registration.
Uneducated whites were registered while educated blacks were turned away. The following example illustrates the law-in-action. When a white Mississippian was asked to interpret this provision of the State’s Constitution - “There shall be no imprisonment for debt” - he replied:
I thank that a Neorger should have 2 years in collage before voting because he don’t under stand. (Quoted in Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution, by Anthony Lewis, at page 130.)
That answer was sufficient to register the voter.
Once the Supreme Court agreed that Mississippi’s controversial law was constitutional, other Southern states followed the same path. As more and more African-Americans lost their right to vote, state legislators throughout the South - elected by white majorities - also passed discriminatory actions which became known as “Jim Crow” laws.
It is fair to ask this question: Although African-Americans were no longer slaves, did their lives worsen during the Jim-Crow era?