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7 Black Politics in Mississippi to 1965 Black politicians in Mississippi reached their highest level of power shortly after the Reconstruction Acts enfranchised the freedmen. The political gains of African Americans during Reconstruction , known as the “heroic age” of black Mississippians, did not outlast the 1870s.1 White violence and intimidation during and after the return of white Democratic rule in 1875 forced a sharp decline in black political offices and voting, and most black men lost the vote completely with the ratification of the Constitution of 1890. While the white electorate widened with the enfranchisement of women under the 19th Amendment in 1920, black women—as well as men—gained nothing. Black Mississippians would not return to the active political life of the state until after World War II, when black veterans and emboldened civil rights organizations slowly expanded black voting. Despite the best efforts of civil rights groups in the 1950s and early 1960s, violent white resistance and economic coercion stymied massive black voter registration and led advocates of black suffrage in Mississippi to push for strong backing from the federal government. The Kennedy administration, responding to pressures from civil rights activists in the South, began the first steps to bring back the franchise to African Americans in the Magnolia State. Black voting and political participation in Mississippi began with congressional passage of the Reconstruction Act of 1867. The Act enfranchised the freedmen and facilitated the development of black political power in the defeated Confederacy. Majority-black Mississippi and South Carolina became the two states with the highest number of black officeholders during Reconstruction. By the end of the Reconstruction 1 1 8 | After Freedom Summer period, five black men in Mississippi had held the office of secretary of state, and one each had served terms as lieutenant governor and state superintendent of education. Black legislators went to Jackson, but they did not secure a majority in the legislature as they had in the Palmetto State. On the county level, voters elected fifteen black sheriffs and took control of the boards of supervisors in the state’s black belt. Many black men also served in law enforcement and county offices, although disproportionately in lesser positions. Three black men also served in the U.S. Senate and one, John Lynch, held a seat in the House of Representatives. Hiram Revels and Blanche K. Bruce served in the Senate and were the only black men in the Senate until the election of Edward Brooke of Massachusetts in 1966. Although whites continued to control most statewide offices and black politicians never achieved a majority in the state government or Republican Party, the presence of black politicians represented a major advance in a short period of time, and showed what black agency combined with federal civil rights enforcement could do.2 The expansion of black political power triggered a violent backlash from white Mississippians. Beginning in 1874, armed whites organized to threaten and kill black voters and officeholders. During the statewide elections in 1875, white violence and electoral fraud against black and white Republicans secured Democratic control of the legislature, which then forced the resignation of Republican Governor Adelbert Ames. Many elected black officials resigned to avoid murder at the hands of vigilantes.3 The First Mississippi Plan in 1875, as the Democratic “redemption” came to be known, did not entirely eliminate blacks from the state’s political life, but black voting sharply declined, and, as Neil McMillen has noted, intimidation and violence meant most black men had stopped voting by the time of the constitutional convention of 1890. Despite the decline in black political participation, white politicians in Mississippi still feared potential black dominance, and many black men still remained registered, if not actually voting. White Democrats felt especially threatened by the Republican-controlled Congress and the administration of President Benjamin Harrison. The so-called Force Bill, which would have allowed federal intervention on behalf of disfranchised black voters, had just failed in Congress by one vote. In response, white delegates gathered in the summer of 1890 to create a new state constitution. The delegates moved to eliminate forever their anxieties about black Black Politics in Mississippi to 1965 | 9 electoral power by permanently disfranchising nearly all black Mississippians . The provisions of the new constitution, such as the poll tax, the “understanding clause,” and the list of disqualifying crimes, codified an already existing state of disfranchisement and purged blacks from the voter registration rolls. Black men who insisted on pressing for...


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