Civil War History 48.3 (2002) 276-278
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Struggle for Mastery:
Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908
Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908.By Michael Perman. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. 397, illus., maps. Cloth, $49.95; paper, $24.95.)
Struggle for Mastery, the first comprehensive study of the movements that disfranchised African Americans in Southern states, concentrates on the struggle at least as much as the mastery. Michael Perman's volume is surely the fullest narrative we will ever have of the legal, constitutional, and political mechanics of disfranchisement.
Perman clarifies that as Southern politics moved from the compromises and coalitions of the 1880s to the disfranchisement movement of the 1890s, the political device for guaranteeing white supremacy moved from the law to the constitution, and denying people the right to register became more efficient than denying [End Page 276] potential voters the right to vote. That distinction between laws and constitutions establishes the theme that disfranchisement was a messy effort made by men who did not want politics to be messy. By the early 1890s, "elimination, not just restriction, was the goal that had captured their imagination" (322). Their challenge was to make registration as difficult as possible. Perman does an excellent job sorting out how disfranchising conventions and legislatures used secret ballots, poll taxes, literacy and constitutional understanding clauses, residence requirements, and direct primaries.
The book is best at answering questions about who took the vote from African American men and how they did it. The book's main argument with past scholarship comes from Perman's attention to variety. Correcting the historians who argue that disfranchisement occurred as a way for black-belt elites to gain control from hill-country farmers, Perman offers a diversity of reasons. The body of the work moves slowly through each Southern state, showing the particulars of its political system, who thought disfranchisement of black voters would serve their purposes, and how they went about it. In some states, black belt elites started the process; in others, reform groups led the way, while in others, small farmers started the drive for disfranchisement. Despite the diversity of origins, wealthy Democrats almost always helped determine the final shape and victory of disfranchisement.
Some of the advances in the book come simply from Perman's clear thinking and willingness to draw distinctions. The book is especially effective on showing the national political context for Southern disfranchisement. The Fifteenth Amendment had the power to complicate Southern politics well after it lost the power to guarantee African American voting rights. Also, the national drive to reform politics in the progressive era seems more important here than in many works that concentrate only on the South.
It is worth noting what the volume does not do. The politicians Perman discusses seem resolutely rational, so discussions of irrationality in Southern life have no place in his manuscript. W. J. Cash's "perambulating little Souths in miniature" do not appear. Nor do C. Vann Woodward's worn out voters in the 1880s, so perplexed by the variety of compromises and coalitions that many turned to nihilism and bird hunting. Instead, Perman sees the disfranchisers as lawyers manipulating the laws and, especially, the state constitutions. Nor does Perman draw on the current popularity of social constructionism, which portrays race as a fiction that served particular political and economic interests. In Perman's analysis, the process of race-making had taken place well before the 1890s, and disfranchisers were fighting about votes, not the meanings of whiteness and blackness. Finally and most surprisingly, the book does relatively little to describe specific policy objectives of different political groups. The conclusion that "Basically, disfranchisement was intended to remove black voters from the political process once and for all" (325) is not surprising except that it does not address the ideals or interests behind that goal.
Thoroughly researched, clearly considered, and illustrated with state maps and pictures of frowning white politicians, this work is monumentally solid. While it may [End Page 277] not strike...