- Defying Disfranchisement: Black Voting Rights Activism in the Jim Crow South, 1890-1908
This terrific book is a major contribution to the history of civil rights. Because the centerpiece of this work is a series of cases from Alabama, any student of state history will find this study fascinating and will learn much. This is a work of legal history, but no potential reader should worry that it is some impenetrable legal tome. Volney Riser not only carefully analyzes a series of voting rights cases; he does so cogently and clearly.
Others have written about the white effort to disfranchise black voters in the South in the late nineteenth century (in particular, see Michael Perman's Struggle for Mastery [Chapel Hill, NC, 2001] and E. Morgan Kousser's Shaping of Southern Politics [New Haven, CT, 1974]). But Riser has written the first comprehensive history of the legal struggle against the Jim Crow constitutions. Defying Disfranchisement is a study of a major struggle for civil rights that has been neglected by historians. Riser magnanimously excuses the academy's failure by explaining how difficult and time-consuming it was to research this unknown legal history. But the author is too modest in his appraisal of the import of his work and the story he tells.
This is a story about southern blacks taking on Jim Crow in the late nineteenth century. Riser resurrects these individuals and the organizations they founded to fight disfranchisement. They organized, raised money, and publicized their battle through the black press. They also recruited plaintiffs for test cases. To fight this legal battle, lawyers were needed. Consequently, Defying Disfranchisement uncovers the leading role of black lawyers in this struggle, all of them unknown to most people, including historians. Riser introduces his readers to such men as Cornelius Jones and Wilford H. Smith, both natives of Mississippi. Jones was politically ambitious but of limited legal ability. Smith was a lawyer first and foremost and was the first black lawyer to win a case in the US Supreme Court. Another reason these lawyers' stories have been downplayed is because Booker T. Washington secretly underwrote the most important [End Page 79] cases. In the end the battle was lost, and losers are often ignored by history. But these are losers who deserve recognition, and Riser provides it.
Riser begins with little-known cases in Mississippi and Tennessee. He then moves to South Carolina where for one brief moment there was hope that the federal courts would understand the racial motives of the disfranchisement effort. Mills v. Green (67 F. 818, D.S.C. 1895) challenged South Carolina's statutory effort to disfranchise black voters in anticipation of the election of delegates to a constitutional convention. Nathan Goff, a federal judge from West Virginia, found the statute "unreasonable, burdensome, and harassing . . . without defense," and "appalling." He also found that the intent of the lawmakers "was how to successfully destroy the greatest number of ballots of the citizens of African descent" (Mills v. Green, 832). Naturally, Goff was reversed. Such strong words and willingness to highlight the intent of southern white lawmakers in the disfranchisement effort was almost unique and certainly not heard again in a southern court until the 1960s.
Defying Disfranchisement explores legal efforts in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Virginia, but the important story that Riser's book recounts is the battle in Alabama. This was the most sustained and best prepared legal challenge to disfranchisement. The chief actors in this saga were Jackson Giles, Booker T. Washington, and Wilford Smith. Giles served as the plaintiff, and Washington secretly provided the funds to underwrite the litigation. Smith was the lawyer and the architect of this legal battle. Previously, Smith had successfully challenged the exclusion of blacks from a jury in Carter v. Texas in the US Supreme Court. Smith took four cases to the Supreme Court challenging the disfranchisement provisions of the Alabama constitution. In the end the cases were lost, but Riser...