The Mississippi officials met in the heat of summer with a singular goal in mind: stopping Black people from voting.
“We came here to exclude the Negro,” said the convention’s president. “Nothing short of this will answer.”
This conclave took place in 1890. But remarkably, approximately 130 years later, the laws they came up with are still blocking nearly 16% of Mississippi’s Black voting-age population from casting a ballot.
The US stands alone as one of the few advanced countries that allow people convicted of felonies to be blocked from voting after they leave prison. The policy in Mississippi underscores how these laws, rooted in the explicit racism of the Jim Crow south, continue to have discriminatory consequences today.
One of those affected is Roy Harness, a 67-year-old social worker, who may never be able to vote because of a crime committed decades ago.
In the mid-1980s, he was convicted of forgery after he ran up a debt to a drug dealer and cashed a series of fake checks. He spent nearly two years in prison and hasn’t been back since.
In recent years, Harness, who is also an army veteran, has been on a new path. He enrolled in college when he was 55 and got his bachelor’s degree when he was 63. He got a master’s degree in 2019. Now a full-time social worker, Harness keeps a shelf behind his desk filled with awards and accomplishments – a reminder to his clients of all they can accomplish.
In 2013, he tried to register during a voter registration drive at his college, but saw on a pamphlet that forgery, the crime he had been convicted of decades earlier, was a disenfranchising crime in Mississippi.
“It makes me feel bad. I’ve served my country, nation … got a degree and [I] still can’t vote, no matter what you do to prove yourself,” he said.
Mississippi also makes it nearly impossible for anyone convicted of a felony to get their voting rights back. Fewer than 200 people have succeeded in restoring their voting rights in the last quarter-century, the Guardian can reveal, based on newly obtained data.
Now, Harness is involved in a new effort to change Mississippi’s law.
After slavery ended in Mississippi, following the US civil war, newly enfranchised Black voters in the state were beginning to wield political power. In 1870, Mississippi sent Hiram Revels to the US Senate, the first Black person to serve in the body.
By 1890, the delegates who gathered for a constitutional convention in Jackson, the state capital, were determined to blunt this trend.
They faced a significant roadblock to their racist goal. The new 15th amendment to the US constitution explicitly prohibited states from preventing people from voting based on their race. And so the delegates came up with a plan that would effectively prevent Black people from voting without explicitly saying that was their intent.