One Old Way of Keeping Black People From Voting Still Works

A promising bill to ensure African-Americans’ civil rights was snuffed out by a Senate filibuster in 1891.

Opinion Columnist

  • March 5, 2021
An African-American family in Southern Mississippi in 1895.
Credit…Sepia Times/Universal Images Group, via Getty Images

This is the story of how a bill to save the vote and preserve a semblance of democracy for millions of Americans died at the hands of an intransigent, reactionary minority in the Senate, which used the filibuster to do its dirty work.

In the summer of 1890, the state of Mississippi held its second constitutional convention of the post-Civil War era. The first, in 1868, was an attempt to make biracial democracy a reality. This second was meant to be the final nail in its coffin.

White elites, working within the Democratic Party, had already toppled the state’s Republican-led Reconstruction government in 1876. “The Mississippi Democrats had conducted a classical counterrevolutionary crusade,” the historian George C. Rable writes in “But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction.”

While publicly professing peaceful intentions, Democrats selectively used armed intimidation to destroy the Republican Party in the counties by keeping Black voters away or forcing them to vote Democratic.

Angry whites, Rable continues, “engaged in terrorist activities with seeming impunity.”

Seizing power is one thing, consolidating it is another. Endemic poverty in the state put both whites and Blacks at the mercy of planter-merchants who provided land and credit in exchange for a substantial share of the crop. An ongoing depression — as well as additional economic shocks, like the Panic of 1884 — pulled these farmers deep into debt as they borrowed money at high interest rates to make up for low prices.

To fight these conditions, farmers organized as the Greenback Party, which urged greater government involvement in the economy. White farmers and some Black voters challenged Democratic control of state government. Tens of thousands of white Mississippians would join the Farmers’ Alliance, founded to end the exploitative crop-lien system and inflate the currency for the sake of sharecroppers and other small farmers.

Black farmers, banned from the Farmers’ Alliance, formed their own organizations. The Colored Farmers’ Alliance, for example, claimed many thousands of members mostly in the fertile lands of the Mississippi Delta. “Organized to emphasize self-help and new and efficient farming methods, it quickly moved to boycotts, demanding higher wages and espousing some types of legal and social reform,” the historian Dorothy Overstreet Pratt writes in “Sowing the Wind: The Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890.”

Agrarian revolt fomented by poor whites challenged elite control over state politics; agrarian rebellion fomented by Blacks threatened control over a large part of the labor supply. And the violence used to suppress Black voting and political activity brought unwanted attention from a federal government still in the hands of the Republican Party. A new state constitution would solve the problem.

The unwanted attention came in the form of a voting rights bill. In his first message to Congress, issued in December 1889, President Benjamin Harrison, a Republican and a veteran of the Civil War, called on Congress to stop the disenfranchisement of Black voters in the South and to help “secure to all our people a free exercise of the right of suffrage.” Voter suppression had cost Harrison the popular vote in the 1888 election. Securing the voting rights of Black Americans would redound to his — and the Republican Party’s — benefit, although that was not his only concern.

“In many parts of our country where the colored population is large the people of that race are by various devices deprived of any effective exercise of their political rights and of many of their civil rights,” Harrison wrote. “The wrong does not expend itself upon those whose votes are suppressed. Every constituency in the Union is wronged.”

Henry Cabot Lodge, a young Republican congressman from Massachusetts and the chairman of the House elections committee, took up the call. In June 1890, as Mississippi elites debated whether to hold a constitutional convention, Lodge introduced his federal elections bill. Rather than let Southern officials certify elections, Lodge would place that power in the hands of federal officials. The bill, he explained on the House floor, would make public “all the facts relating to elections, to protect the voters and to render easy the punishment of fraud.” He went on:

There is absolutely nothing in this bill except provisions to secure the greatest amount of publicity in regard to elections and to protect the ballot-box by making sure the punishment of those who commit crimes against the suffrage.

Echoing President Harrison, Lodge declared that:

The government which made the Black man a citizen is bound to protect him in his rights as a citizen of the United States, and it is a cowardly government if it does not do it! No people can afford to write anything into their Constitution and not sustain it. A failure to do what is right brings its own punishment to nations as to men.

Southern Democrats were livid, calling Lodge’s proposal an unconstitutional “force bill.” In the Senate, John W. Daniel of Virginia charged that it would “strip the states” of their “ancient and confessed right to determine the qualifications of their voters” as well as “the prerogatives of a state to choose and the right of each House to judge of the election, the return, and qualification of its members.”

Back in Mississippi, news of the Lodge bill pushed white elites into action. “Let us take warning from republicans who are entrenching in power, in the hope of permanent control of the Federal government,” wrote one newspaper editor, according to Pratt’s account. Although there were still disputes over the exact shape of a new constitution, there was wide agreement on the need to suppress Black voters and, as one delegate put it, “secure to the state of Mississippi, white supremacy.”

The convention had several constraints. It could not run afoul of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which barred states from denying the right to vote on the basis of race. It also had to be careful not to disenfranchise too many white men, given the real risk of backlash. The solution was a set of overlapping rules, regulations and reforms that established white dominance and defused some class antagonisms (while exacerbating others).

The new Mississippi Constitution would impose a poll tax for voting and a literacy test — called the “Understanding Clause” — for registration. These would disenfranchise a significant number of white voters in the poorer, less developed regions of the state. To account for this, and to resolve disputes over apportionment, delegates created a new system based on voting population, in which most representation went to majority white counties. This was a significant change from the status quo, where seats were based on population, and wealthy whites in majority Black counties reaped additional representation on account of the voter suppression of Blacks.

The convention, held in the state capital of Jackson, also created new majority white districts out of several majority Black counties. Finally, to guarantee white control of state politics, delegates implemented an electoral college for choosing the governor, called the “unit system,” in which a candidate would have to win a majority of votes and a majority of counties to claim victory.

Mississippi completed its new constitution just as the Lodge bill moved from the House of Representatives — where it passed without a single Democratic vote — to the Senate. And in the debate over the bill, Mississippi’s plan to disenfranchise its Black population took center stage. “The white body of the South will forever keep the colored people as a lower stratum, without political power or social significance,” Senator Henry Blair of New Hampshire said, “until the time when the masses of the white people themselves have intelligence enough to know what real freedom is and to cast that ballot which ordains liberty for the millions of all races, and not the elevation and power for the few of one.”

Not every Republican, however, thought the bill was necessary. Some, explains Alexander Keyssar in “The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States,” were convinced that the party’s “procapitalist, pro-economic development, protariff views” would “attract a new white constituency in the South while shoring up Republican support elsewhere.” The party, they argued, did not need Black voters to thrive.

Division among Republicans allowed Democrats to take the initiative. They delayed debate on the bill until after the November midterm elections, where Democrats won control of the House. When, in December, Republicans moved to open debate, Democrats objected again. “We are acting in a great deal of haste to propose at this time repressive measures for the passage of a repressive and coercive force bill for the people,” said Senator John Reagan of Texas.

When, later that month, the Lodge bill finally reached the floor of the Senate, it was met by a Democratic filibuster. Democrats blasted the proposal as an unconstitutional power grab, a “cunning contrivance to place in the hands of a minority the control of the institutions of this great people, with a bayonet for every ballot to perpetuate their ruin.”

Republicans pointed to the new Mississippi constitution as evidence the bill was needed. “No artifice, no expedient, no fraud, no violence, no disregard of public opinion in the North or of the moral sentiment of the world is going to deter the Solid South from maintaining its supremacy by a suppression of the colored vote,” proclaimed Senator Joseph Dolph of Oregon:

Nothing but the exercise by Congress of the powers lodged in it by the federal Constitution and the power of the general government to enforce the legislation will ever succeed in securing the free exercise to citizens of the United States in those States of their right to free speech and to a free ballot.

Debate continued into the next Congress. But when Democrats motioned to move on from the Lodge bill, a number of Republicans joined them. Some were simply exhausted, others opposed the bill outright as overreaching and unenforceable. By a vote of 35 to 34 with 19 abstentions, the Senate tabled the bill to take up other business. It would not return to the floor. The next time Congress would try to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment was more than 60 years later, with the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

With the death of the Lodge bill, the new Mississippi Constitution could take effect without federal interference. There were still the courts, but the Supreme Court would eventually rule in 1898 that the disenfranchisement clauses of the constitution “do not on their face discriminate between the races.”

By the end of the decade, in 1900, most of the rest of the South had followed Mississippi down the path of official white supremacy and total suppression of Black voting. Circumstances varied from the state to state, but the dynamics were the same: first came biracial agrarian rebellion, then new constitutions, new restrictions, and a new equilibrium of white elite dominance over land, labor and capital.

It is too much to say that the Lodge bill alone would have stopped this; the rise of industrial capitalism in the North, the profound economic downturn in the South and the spread of virulently racist ideology throughout white society are among the factors that led to Jim Crow and the triumph of Southern reaction at turn of the 20th century.

But none of it was foreordained, and a forthright defense of the right of Americans to vote, to participate in politics and to govern themselves may have kept the worst of the era at bay. No historical comparison is ever exact, but Americans today should take note.

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