Mississippi may be about to double down on its dubious distinction as the state where the tide of progress is blocked and pushed back.
During Reconstruction, Mississippi became a Black power center in this country. There were not only more Black people than white ones; there were also more registered Black voters than white ones.
But white racists and terrorists seethed at this assertion of power and employed every method of intimidation possible to dissuade Black people from voting.
The terrorists devised the Mississippi Plan, in which terrorist groups like the Red Shirts and rifle clubs used physical violence — including murder — and economic coercion to wrest back control of the state’s government.
The governor requested more federal troops, but President Ulysses S. Grant resisted because of political considerations in other parts of the country. (That instinct to countenance Black suffering, so as not to rock the political boat, would resurface over and over throughout the history of this country and continues to this day.)
The Mississippi Plan succeeded in suppressing Black votes in the statewide elections of 1875. The situation was made even worse when a compromise over the contested presidential election of 1876 allowed Reconstruction to fail and led to the withdrawal of federal troops from Southern states.
By 1890, white supremacists had gathered enough power in Mississippi to call a constitutional convention to write white supremacy into the state’s DNA. Although a majority of the state was Black, only one Black delegate was allowed at the convention.
The delegates passed the new Constitution — which included voter suppression tactics like poll taxes and tests — without even submitting it to the public for a vote.
Six years later, in 1896, a Black man named Henry Williams was indicted on charges of murder and sentenced to be hanged. He appealed on the grounds that the indictment was invalid: The jury had been drawn from a pool of registered voters, which, because the state Constitution had disenfranchised most Black voters by the time of his trial, was almost entirely white, and Williams argued that this was a violation of his 14th Amendment rights.
The case, Williams v. Mississippi, made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously, in what I believe is one of the most shocking decisions the court has ever handed down, that Williams had not shown that Mississippi’s new Constitution was discriminatory.
I have read the minutes from the constitutional convention. There is no question that its entire purpose was to discriminate against and disenfranchise Black voters.