Nov. 1, 1890

Credit: Wikipedia

Mississippi adopted a new state constitution aimed at barring Black voters and restoring white supremacy. The disenfranchisement clause struck all voters from the rolls and then required them to register again to vote — but only approved them if they paid poll taxes, could read and pass a quiz on the constitution. 

“Dressed up in the genteel garb of bringing integrity to the voting booth,” ‘One Person, No Vote’ opined, “this feigned legal innocence was legislative evil genius.” 

There was no mystery to those involved. 

“There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter,” future Gov. and U.S. Sen. James K. Vardaman declared, “Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the n—– from politics.” 

The changes worked. Within a decade, the number of Black registered voters fell from more than 130,000 to less than 1,300. Other Southern states followed Mississippi’s lead, barring Black voters in every way they could. There were “grandfather clauses,” which required voters to have a grandfather who voted. There were even “white primaries,” where white Southern Democrats barred Black voters from their primaries. 

“Jim Crow was never policed just by laws written out on paper,” according to ‘Our Unfinished March’. “It was enforced with broken bones and crushed skulls, with rope wrapped around trees and knots tied around necks, with bodies displayed in town squares or made to disappear at the bottom of rivers.” 

Unlike Mississippi’s prior constitution, voters did not approve or ratify the document. The lone Black member of the constitutional constitution was Isaiah T. Montgomery, who was once enslaved by Jefferson Davis and had since helped found the all-Black town, Mount Bayou. Montgomery voted for the constitution, hoping this disenfranchisement might mean an end to violence against Black Mississippians. It didn’t.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.