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Defying Disfranchisement

Black Voting Rights Activism in the Jim Crow South, 1890-1910

R. Volney Riser

Publication Year: 2010

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Jim Crow strengthened rapidly and several southern states adopted new constitutions designed primarily to strip African American men of their right to vote. Since the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited eliminating voters based on race, the South concocted property requirements, literacy tests, poll taxes, white primaries, and white control of the voting apparatus to eliminate the region’s black vote almost entirely. Desperate to save their ballots, black political leaders, attorneys, preachers, and activists fought back in the courts, sustaining that resistance until the nascent NAACP took over the legal battle. In Defying Disfranchisement, R. Volney Riser documents a number of lawsuits challenging restrictive voting requirements. Though the U.S. Supreme Court received twelve of these cases, that body coldly ignored the systematic disfranchisement of black southerners. Nevertheless, as Riser shows, the attempts themselves were stunning and demonstrate that African Americans sheltered and nurtured a hope that led to wholesale changes in the American legal and political landscape. Riser chronicles numerous significant antidisfranchisement cases, from South Carolina’s Mills v. Green (1985), the first such case to reach the Supreme Court, and Williams v. Mississippi, (1898), the well-known but little-understood challenge to Mississippi’s constitution, to the underappreciated landmark Giles v. Harris—described as the “Second Dred Scott” by contemporaries—in which the Court upheld Alabama’s 1901 state constitution. In between, he examines a host of voting rights campaigns waged throughout the country and legal challenges initiated across the South by both black and white southerners. Often disputatious, frequently disorganized, and woefully underfunded, the antidisfranchisement activists of 1890–1908 lost, and badly; in some cases, their repeated and infuriating defeats not only left the status quo in place but actually made things worse. Regardless, they brought attention to the problem and identified the legal questions and procedural difficulties facing African Americans. Rather than present southern blacks as victims during the roughest era of discrimination, in Defying Disfranchisement Riser demonstrates that they fought against Jim Crow harder and earlier than traditional histories allow, and they drew on their own talents and resources to do so. With slim ranks and in the face of many defeats, this daring and bold cadre comprised a true vanguard, blazing trails that subsequent generations of civil rights activists followed and improved. By making a fight at all, Riser asserts, these organizers staged a necessary and instructive prelude to the civil rights movement.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii

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Prologue: April 27, 1903

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pp. 1-11

Hushed by the marshal’s cry of “Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!” the crowd stood and watched as nine men clad in silken black robes filed onto the dais. It was a decision day in the U.S. Supreme Court. The chamber fell silent, and the marshal admonished “all persons having business” before the Court to “draw near and give...

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1. We Must Either Fight or Submit: Phase One Begins

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pp. 12-45

Robert Sproule had campaigned hard to be Warren County, Mississippi’s tax assessor, but when officials opened the ballot boxes and tallied the results of the 1892 county election, his opponent, R. A. Fredericks, prevailed by eight votes. Whispers flew furiously. Something was rotten in the Brunswick precinct. Seventy votes...

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2. If Thine Eye Be Evil: The Road to Williams v. Mississippi

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pp. 46-73

In late August 1895, Indianola, Mississippi’s Sunflower Tocsin printed poetry on its front page, offering readers an excerpt from E. C. Hudson’s “The Negriad.” The first stanza began...

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3. The Grandfather Clause: Phase Two Begins

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pp. 74-111

Good registrars were hard to find. Their task was delicate and thankless and dirty, and in Mississippi, that state’s disfranchisers would have been nothing without men like Jim Brown. W. J. “Jim” Brown Jr. oversaw the city of Jackson’s voter registration...

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4. Negroes Have Organized: Alabama’s Disfranchisers, Black Activists, and the Courts

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pp. 112-137

When disfranchisement came to Alabama, that state’s African American leaders and activists were better prepared than had been their brethren in Mississippi, the Carolinas, and Louisiana. They had the benefit of those previous states’ experience, after all, and in the summer of 1901, it looked as if Alabama’s black community...

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5. An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of Alabama: Registration and Resistance

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pp. 138-153

Five days after Alabama ratified its 1901 constitution, Walter Lynwood Fleming, a twenty-seven-year-old Columbia University Ph.D. student and Pike County, Alabama, native, requested copies of the document from Governor William Dorsey Jelks. The budding historian wanted them for “some rampant Republican...

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6. The Enemies’ Works: The Alabama Cases Begin

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pp. 154-182

On April 30, 1902, two days after Nelson Bibb swore his widely publicized affidavit against Montgomery County’s registrars, there was a sudden and significant development in the “Louisiana Case.” David Ryanes’s lead attorney, Armand Romain, appeared in the Orleans Parish Civil District Court and withdrew the matter...

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7. Swords and Torches: The Virginians Enter the Fray

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pp. 183-203

As Wilford Smith completed his U.S. Supreme Court briefs for Giles v. Harris, and as he prepared the Alabama Supreme Court appeals of Giles v. Teasley II and III and Rogers v. Alabama, the Temporary Plan’s third and fourth registration windows opened. The third encompassed November’s third week and the fourth...

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8. The Second Dred Scott Case: Giles v. Harris Is Decided

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pp. 204-225

James Hayes’s grandstanding in early 1903 proved so fascinating that few seemed to notice when Wilford Smith filed Giles v. Harris with the U.S. Supreme Court on January 28. To be fair, Hayes provided a far more interesting spectacle, but Giles v. Harris was too important to go ignored for long. Observers—journalistic...

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9. The Banner Negroes: Fighting to the End

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pp. 226-252

Notably absent from the public coverage and the private planning of the early antidisfranchisement cases were the plaintiffs themselves. Cornelius Jones’s Mississippi clients were all condemned prisoners and could play no role other than to offer testimony in court. Additionally, their cases were inseparable from Jones’s congressional...

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pp. 253-254

Iwish to begin by thanking Tony Freyer and Kari Frederickson for the innumerable kindnesses they have shown me over the years. And I wish to acknowledge the influence of several professors from years ago, people who inspired (but never pushed...

A Note on Sources

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pp. 255-266


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pp. 267-312


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pp. 313-326

E-ISBN-13: 9780807137413
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807136386

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2010