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One Old Way of Keeping Black People From Voting Still Works

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tags: racism, civil rights, filibuster, African American history, voting rights



This is the story of how a bill to save the vote and preserve a semblance of democracy for millions of Americans died at the hands of an intransigent, reactionary minority in the Senate, which used the filibuster to do its dirty work.

In the summer of 1890, the state of Mississippi held its second constitutional convention of the post-Civil War era. The first, in 1868, was an attempt to make biracial democracy a reality. This second was meant to be the final nail in its coffin.

White elites, working within the Democratic Party, had already toppled the state’s Republican-led Reconstruction government in 1876. “The Mississippi Democrats had conducted a classical counterrevolutionary crusade,” the historian George C. Rable writes in “But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction.”

While publicly professing peaceful intentions, Democrats selectively used armed intimidation to destroy the Republican Party in the counties by keeping Black voters away or forcing them to vote Democratic.

Angry whites, Rable continues, “engaged in terrorist activities with seeming impunity.”

Seizing power is one thing, consolidating it is another. Endemic poverty in the state put both whites and Blacks at the mercy of planter-merchants who provided land and credit in exchange for a substantial share of the crop. An ongoing depression — as well as additional economic shocks, like the Panic of 1884 — pulled these farmers deep into debt as they borrowed money at high interest rates to make up for low prices.

To fight these conditions, farmers organized as the Greenback Party, which urged greater government involvement in the economy. White farmers and some Black voters challenged Democratic control of state government. Tens of thousands of white Mississippians would join the Farmers’ Alliance, founded to end the exploitative crop-lien system and inflate the currency for the sake of sharecroppers and other small farmers.

Black farmers, banned from the Farmers’ Alliance, formed their own organizations. The Colored Farmers’ Alliance, for example, claimed many thousands of members mostly in the fertile lands of the Mississippi Delta. “Organized to emphasize self-help and new and efficient farming methods, it quickly moved to boycotts, demanding higher wages and espousing some types of legal and social reform,” the historian Dorothy Overstreet Pratt writes in “Sowing the Wind: The Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890.”

Agrarian revolt fomented by poor whites challenged elite control over state politics; agrarian rebellion fomented by Blacks threatened control over a large part of the labor supply. And the violence used to suppress Black voting and political activity brought unwanted attention from a federal government still in the hands of the Republican Party. A new state constitution would solve the problem.

 

Read entire article at New York Times

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