In this post, UM Voting Ambassador and Andrew Goodman Foundation Fellow Caroline Leonard shares a brief history of voting suppression in Mississippi and explores civil rights around voting.
The History of Voter Suppression in Mississippi
Mississippi made headlines in 2020 for being one of the states with the strictest voting laws, both in light of the pandemic and for normal election standards. Despite record high turnout in the 2020 election, Mississippi still ranks low in terms of voter participation when compared with the rest of the country, due largely to limited access to absentee ballots, no early voting provisions, and strict voter identification laws. But what exactly led to these conditions? Voter suppression has a long and violent history in Mississippi, whose effects are still felt to this day. In order to understand the state of voting in Mississippi now, we need to look to the history behind it.
Landmark Legislation: Reconstruction and the 14th and 15th Amendments
Before the Civil War, Voting rights in Mississippi were limited to white men who owned property under the 1817 Constitution, and was amended under the 1832 Constitution to allow all white men over the age of 21 to vote. Following the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction in 1865, Mississippi’s efforts to suppress suffrage for African Americans were mostly thwarted by direct federal intervention into the south, and the passage of the 14th Amendment (which gave citizenship status to all people born in the United States and declared that all people are equal under the law) and the 15th Amendment (which guaranteed that a person’s right to vote could not be denied based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude). These provisions were huge in Mississippi because they theoretically gave recently freed slaves, who made up a majority of the Mississippi population, the right to vote and and all other rights granted by citizenship. Additionally, these amendments and a new federal, congressional session reduced the ability of Mississippi’s new government to enforce the “Black Codes” they had created in 1865, and forced them to draft a new Constitution in 1868.
While black voters still faced violence and intimidation when attempting to vote, Reconstruction marked a period of record high turnout and representation for the African American community. Between 1867 and 1876, at least 226 African Americans held public offices, two African American Senators were elected (Hiram R. Revels and Blanche K. Bruce) and the first African American lieutenant governor Alexander K. Davis was elected. For a limited time, black Mississippians were able to engage in the government and shape political outcomes.
The Influx of Voter Suppression
However, the removal of Federal troops from the south heralded in a new era of violence and oppression towards the African American community. Mississippi created a Mississippi Plan which was a direct move to disenfranchise, terrorize, and suppress African Americans in all forms of public, economic, and civic life. It implemented poll taxes, literacy tests, and encouraged intimidation, violence, and agitation towards black voters and majority African American Republican gatherings, effectively eliminating an opposition to the all white Democratic control. It also sought to convert all white men to the Democratic Party, and to remove African American voters from any form of political party participation. These methods were adopted into surrounding states as well, and came to define the Jim Crow era voting policies across the south.
The 1890 Mississippi Constitutional Convention only served to solidify these attempts at disenfranchisement, with the president of the convention explicitly saying that the goal of the convention was to disenfranchise black voters without violating the 15th amendment. Due to legislative barricades to voting and threats from communities, militia, and employers if you attempted to vote, African American registration dropped from 90% to below 6% in Mississippi between the end of Reconstruction and 1892.
The process of disenfranchisement was made easier with the addition of Separate but Equal policies throughout the country, which inevitably led to a large difference in available community resources and government funding. Furthermore, Mississippi passed legislation in 1902 that declared political primaries private, so they could segregate the event. This prohibited African American Mississippians from having access to selecting candidates for elections (at least in the Democratic Party), and removed their ability to effect change in local partisan elections. Simultaneously, this new primary system made it easier for white Mississippians to vote. In addition to legislative enforcement of disenfranchising laws, armed groups such as the Red Shirts, the Klu Klux Klan, and later the White Citizens Council who used economic and social ruthlessness, enforced segregation through violence and intimidation towards African Americans who attempted to vote. These combined efforts not only removed black Mississippians from being able to have power in school boards, public offices, and participation in juries (which were selected based on voter rolls); it installed immense fear among the population.
The passage of the 19th amendment in 1919 (which granted women the right to vote) did not ease voter disenfranchisement efforts. Many Mississippians were opposed to women getting the right to vote, and employed similar tactics to disenfranchise women as were applied to African American men. Furthermore, many white suffragettes actively advocated against including African Americans in the electorate, both to appeal to white legislators and due to their own racism. African American women were especially vulnerable, facing both racism and sexism at polling locations.
The Fight for the Right to Vote: Civil Rights Organization and the Freedom Summer
Attempts at voter registration were met with fierce opposition which only grew with the increasing attention to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Visible acts of violence and threats to central figures like Medger Evers and Fannie Lou Hammer helped to catalyze protests and organization across Mississippi, an area many civil rights activists had considered too dangerous to enter.
In 1961 the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) was created specifically to help voter registration efforts in Mississippi. COFO, led primarily by Bob Moses, encompassed and networked among many existing groups (such as the SNCC, CORE, NAACP, and SCLC) and was instrumental in organizing voter efforts in Mississippi.
In response to efforts to block black Mississipians from participating in the election process and to protest the false idea that the Democratic Party had propagated that African Americans did not want to vote, COFO organized the Freedom Vote in 1963. The Freedom vote was organized on the principle of “parallel systems,” meaning organizers wanted to run a system that mirrored the one they were barred from in order to prove how the system was unfair. This vote demonstrated to residents of the state and to the broader country that black Mississipians wanted to vote, as nearly 80,000 Mississipians cast their ballots in this mock election. The organization and collaboration used to create the Freedom Vote led directly into the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) and the Freedom Summer.
The MFDP was created to challenge the normal Democratic party in the state, and sought to be included in the National Democratic Convention as the only party elected with consent from African American Mississipians. Similar to the Freedom Vote, COFO organized meetings and events parallel to those held by the Democratic Party to campaign for and create a MFDP platform and delegation to send to the National Convention. The MFDP received overwhelming support from across Mississippi and from other civil rights activists, however the Mississippi Democratic Party was given full seating while the MFDP was only given two of the needed 64 seats for their delegation. This was seen as a turning point for many activists, as it proved that the White House, represented by incumbent president Johnson, was not willing to provide support to Southern African Americans despite the well documented violence they received for trying to participate in elections.
Perhaps the most famous outcome of COFO was the Freedom Summer initiative in 1964, which brought hundreds of student volunteers from across the country to help register voters in Mississippi. The efforts of Freedom Summer volunteers were met with extreme violence and opposition from local governments. One of the most infamous crimes committed during this time was the murder of volunteers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. Their murder and other acts of brutality brought attention to the dire conditions in Mississippi at the time. The Freedom Summer also introduced Freedom Schools across the state. These schools served to combat literacy tests by educating students about different parts of the state constitution, and to prepare them for the harassment they would face when attempting to vote.
Other Important Legislation: The Voting Rights Act and Beyond
The Freedom Summer had low effects on increasing voter registration, but they did have an overall positive impact on voting rights in Mississippi. They helped establish freedom schools that would continue to educate Mississippians, and they brought national attention to the extreme violence in the South. Later, after the violent protests in Alabama, President Johnson was pushed to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which banned segregation in public spaces), the 24th Amendment (which outlawed literacy tests and poll taxes), and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one of the most important pieces of legislation in regards to expanding voter access and registration to disenfranchised groups. It reaffirmed that poll taxes and literacy tests were illegal, and it once again brought federal intervention into areas with historical precedents for voter suppression by establishing the need for clearance. With this new need for clearance, regions with histories of voter suppression would have to approve new legislation regarding election procedures with the Federal Government before installing them. This policy was so beneficial that the percent of registered black voters in the south increased from 43% in 1964 to 66% by the end of the 1960’s.
The Voting Rights Act would continue to be expanded, notably to include protections for people who do not speak English in 1975 to the benefit of Native American and Latinx communities. Furthermore, other legislation like the 26th amendment would enhance voting rights nationwide by granting all 18 year olds the right to vote, and activists continued to fight enduring issues in equality presented in gerrymandering and redlining.
What does the Future Look Like
While Mississippi voting rights have come a long way since the detrimental Jim Crow Era, the state still has low voter turnout and high barriers of access. States have been increasing restrictive voting laws nationwide, due in part to the 2013 court case Shelby County vs. Holder which struck down the section of the Voting Rights Act that gave the federal government the authority to clear voter policy before states implemented it. In response to this court decision, many states immediately implemented new voter legislation. Mississippi was one of many states that passed stricter voter ID laws following the court decision.
The conversation around voting rights has shifted to a debate about election security versus open access to polling. The main concern, and often the reason for the increase in voting regulation, is potential voter fraud. A study done by Keith G. Bentele and Erin E. O’Brian shows that both political parties, Republicans and Democrats, have historically used voter suppression tactics to align their bases and to try and benefit from election availability. Furthermore, restrictive policies are more likely to be enacted in state governments as opposed to federal legislation (however it is important to note that the research in this article was done before the outcome of Shelby County vs. Holder) similar to how Jim Crow era voter suppression policies occurred on a state by state basis. Additionally, restrictive voter legislation (which occurred across the country in this study between 2006 and 2011) is more likely to be passed where there are increased reports of voter fraud, regardless of whether or not these claims are verified.
Mississippi in particular has limited and confusing absentee ballot policies, no early voting policies, and no online voter registration; all of which make voting more difficult. In the 2018 Statutory Report released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights cited that stricter ID policies could often be cost restrictive to citizens, and that limited access to early voting and absentee ballots could create longer lines on election days. This may become more perilous to Mississippi residents, as the report also shows that multiple polling locations have been shut down since Shelby County vs. Holder court case. Mississippi is not the only state where election laws have become stricter since 2013, however, Mississippi is one of a few states that was frequently observed by the federal government in regards to election laws and procedures. Another concern mentioned by the Commission’s report is the use of voter roll purges (which can often erroneously remove voters for from voter rolls for lack of activity or minor spelling errors), challenges to voters at the polls (which Mississippi does allow), and barriers to access for non-English speaking voters and voters with disabilities.
However, Mississippi has also continued to improve access to voting and just recently voted to overturn a Jim Crow era election law, marking one of the first times the state had removed a disenfranchising practice left from the 1890 Constitution without outside intervention. The legislation required a state official to receive both the majority vote and the majority of house districts in order to win. Due to the districting policies in the state, this legislation often worked to prohibit the minority political party (originally Republicans and now Democrats) from winning in elections. This law was challenged in the federal court system in 2019 with the prosecution claiming it was racially discriminatory and in violation of the Voting Rights Act. While this lawsuit failed, it was added to the 2020 ballot to remove the policy, and Mississippians widely voted in favor of removing the legislation.
Mississippi has a complicated history with voting access and disenfranchisement. While we should celebrate that voter participation was at an all time high this year and that Mississippi made history by voluntarily removing a Jim Crow era policy from the Constitution, it is still important to recognize the history of voter suppression in the state and to work to bolster civic engagement statewide. The mission of the Andrew Goodman Foundation is to advocate for fair, easy, and equitable elections and to honor the memory of Andrew Goodman, one of the volunteers who was murdered during the Freedom Summer of 1964. In order to do that, we must understand the history of voter suppression in Mississippi, and continue to monitor and fight laws that may impede the freedom for all people to vote.
For your reference: