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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

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Around 1900, the southern states embarked on a series of political campaigns aimed at disfranchising large numbers of voters. By 1908, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia had succeeded in depriving virtually all African Americans, and a large number of lower-class whites, of the voting


Around 1900, the southern states embarked on a series of political campaigns aimed at disfranchising large numbers of voters. By 1908, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia had succeeded in depriving virtually all African Americans, and a large number of lower-class whites, of the voting rights they had possessed since Reconstruction--rights they would not regain for over half a century.

Struggle for Mastery is the most complete and systematic study to date of the history of disfranchisement in the South. After examining the origins and objectives of disfranchisement, Michael Perman traces the process as it unfolded state by state. Because he examines each state within its region-wide context, he is able to identify patterns and connections that have previously gone unnoticed. Broadening the context even further, Perman explores the federal government's seeming acquiescence in this development, the relationship between disfranchisement and segregation, and the political system that emerged after the decimation of the South's electorate. The result is an insightful and persuasive interpretation of this highly significant, yet generally misunderstood, episode in U.S. history.

Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement
This is a book which every historian of the South will have to read and ponder.
Chicago Tribune
Perman is the leading authority on the political history of the post-Civil War South, and his mastery of the subject is fully in evidence.
Using a wide range of both primary and secondary sources and bolstered by quantitative analyses, the book makes an important contribution to our understanding of late 19th- and early 20th-century Southern and national politics.
Edward L. Ayers
Perman deals with disfranchisement in its many variations, portraying the drama of each state's struggles in powerful narrative and penetrating analysis.
George M. Fredrickson
This study is a major contribution to the history of the New South. It is about as close to a definitive history of disfranchisement as is possible to imagine.
From the Publisher
This is a book which every historian of the South will have to read and ponder. (Times Literary Supplement)

Perman is the leading authority on the political history of the post-Civil War South, and his mastery of the subject is fully in evidence. (Chicago Tribune)

Using a wide range of both primary and secondary sources and bolstered by quantitative analyses, the book makes an important contribution to our understanding of late 19th- and early 20th-century Southern and national politics. (Choice)

Perman deals with disfranchisement in its many variations, portraying the drama of each state's struggles in powerful narrative and penetrating analysis. (Edward L. Ayers, University of Virginia)

This study is a major contribution to the history of the New South. It is about as close to a definitive history of disfranchisement as is possible to imagine. (George M. Fredrickson, Stanford University)

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Struggle for Mastery
Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908

By Michael Perman

University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2001 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 080782593X


Disfranchisement in History

The campaign for disfranchisement at the turn of the century was quite possibly one of the most dramatic and decisive episodes in American history. One by one, over a period of two decades, each state in the former Confederacy set in motion complicated and hazardous electoral movements aimed at removing large numbers of its eligible voters. These ruthless acts of political surgery preoccupied the region's citizenry and dominated its political life as constitutional conventions were summoned into existence and constitutional amendments were formulated and then ratified. This drastic remedy created a watershed in the history of the South between, on the one hand, the political and social turbulence of the sectional conflict and its aftermath and, on the other, the relative stability and calm that ensued during the first half of the twentieth century.

    Disfranchisement, like the imposition of segregation that occurred around the same time, was a historical event of fundamental importance and impact. Consequently, it has figured prominently in the historical literature ever since, whether in histories of particular states, the South as a region, or the entire country. Topical historical studies dealing with such matters as government and politics, race relations, or constitutional development have also examined disfranchisement in the South in many different ways. The subject therefore does not suffer from oversight or neglect. It is perhaps surprising, then, to discover that only one study has been devoted exclusively to disfranchisement in all of the states involved. Written in the 1930s, it has never been published as a book. As a result, Struggle for Mastery will be the first book-length study that focuses on disfranchisement alone in every southern state, while also placing each instance in a comparative context across the entire region.

    All the same, a great deal has been written on this subject and a historiography has emerged. It begins with William A. Mabry's dissertation at Duke University, "The Disfranchisement of the Negro in the South." Completed in 1933, it appeared piecemeal as a series of journal articles offering accounts of disfranchisement in Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, and North Carolina. Because his study was primarily descriptive rather than analytical, Mabry was not concerned with making generalizations or identifying patterns among the states. He did indicate that the perpetrators were "usually the political leaders [of the Democratic Party] who saw their positions endangered by the opposition's use of the Negro vote" and that the devices employed to disfranchise (that is, the voting tests and qualifications) as well as the objective sought (namely, elimination of all African Americans from voting) were common to all of the states.[1]Mabry also concluded that, for the most part, these disfranchising initiatives succeeded in achieving their aim.[2] In giving priority to description over explanation, Mabry was no doubt reflecting the assumptions of other historians who wrote about this episode in the half century after it occurred, for they did not feel compelled to account for a development that seemed self-explanatory, even natural or desirable.

    A break in this trend came in 1949 with the publication of Southern Politics in State and Nation by V. O. Key Jr. and in 1951 with the publication of Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 by C. Vann Woodward. Perhaps the most admired and authoritative students of the South in their respective disciplines of political science and history, Key and Woodward injected into the study of disfranchisement several interpretative notions that have affected all subsequent approaches to the subject.

    In Southern Politics, Key suggested that the disfranchising campaigns of the 1890s amounted to a "Bourbon coup d'état," for the "forces in the drive for disfranchisement" were the conservative or Bourbon element of the Democratic Party. "In most southern states," he claimed, the leadership "came from the conservative Democratic faction and its center of strength, at least outside the towns and cities, was in the black-belt counties."[3] But only a few pages later, Key backed off when he realized that Mississippi and South Carolina did not quite fit this generalization. In its place, he rather hesitantly pitched a weaker explanation. "Perhaps the sounder generalization," he conceded, "is that the groups on top at the moment, whatever their political orientation, feared that their opponents might recruit Negro support" and thus launched the move for disfranchisement.[4] Key had shifted his position from the assertion that the "conservative Democratic faction," located in the black belt and the towns, led the movement to the suggestion that "the groups on top," whatever their political stance or geographical location, acted out of fear that rival parties like the Populists and Republicans or rival groups within their own Democratic Party, or even both, might use the black vote against them. But he left both generalizations, the weak as well as the strong, undeveloped and did not indicate which he preferred.

    Woodward's interpretative approach in Origins of the New South was similar to Key's strong generalization. He too claimed that the black belt Democrats initiated the state campaigns for disfranchisement, but he gave less credence to Key's inclusion of a town-based element of this conservative faction. "Behind the 'White Supremacy' slogans and the front of racial solidarity there raged a struggle between Southern white men that is usually overlooked"—the long-standing rivalry between "the Black Belt and the Hill Country."[5] So pivotal was this contest between the black-majority counties and those that were predominantly white that "the Negro, supposedly the primary concern of the white-supremacy conventions, was forgotten in the struggle of white men for supremacy over white men."[6] In effect, the black vote became the bone of contention in a contest that revolved around competing political and class interests among whites. But, like Key, Woodward believed that the Democrats in the black districts initiated disfranchisement as a way of depriving their opponents of the electoral advantage they derived from the black vote.

    Like Key, Woodward also shifted position. In The Strange Career of Jim Crow, published a few years later in 1955, he gave greater emphasis to lower-class whites as the initiators of disfranchisement. In this study of the history of segregation, he put forth what has been called the "Woodward thesis" on the origins of segregation. After a decade or so in which some degree of fluidity and imprecision characterized the South's race relations in the wake of Reconstruction, Woodward argued, in the 1890s, the region repudiated these "forgotten alternatives" and embraced instead a "capitulation to racism" as pressures arose to sharpen the line of demarcation between the races. Woodward did not identify the source of this pressure, but it seemed to be coming from the lower levels of the social structure because the conservatives who were in the ascendant capitulated to the demand for a radical solution to replace the existing, more moderate system. In effect, Woodward observed, "the Negro was now pressed into service as a sectional scapegoat in the reconciliation of estranged white classes and the reunion of the Solid South."[7] Although the book's subject matter was the origins and subsequent course of segregation, Woodward's interpretation of how race relations became hardened in the 1890s could well apply to the more stringent measures being taken against black voting. Woodward was not categorical about the similarities between the processes of disfranchisement and segregation, but the notion that pressures for disfranchisement came from below and were part of a "capitulation to racism" and a "reunion of the Solid South" began to be taken seriously. After all, as Albert D. Kirwan had pointed out in Revolt of the Rednecks (1951), a study of Mississippi politics in the half century since Reconstruction, disfranchisement produced a political environment in which a new breed of rabble-rousing politician arose, including such demagogues as Mississippi's James K. Vardaman, as well as Jeff Davis in Arkansas and Cole Blease in South Carolina.[8] So it was quite conceivable that the revolt of lower-class whites contributed significantly to the upward pressure for disfranchisement.

    Within the span of a few years, disfranchisement had become a contentious topic attracting considerable attention. Yet the interpretations that had generated this new interest were actually quite speculative. Key's two generalizations about the identity of the disfranchisers came almost as an afterthought in the fifth and final chapter on "restrictions on voting" of a book whose subject matter was not disfranchisement but the one-party South in the mid-twentieth century. Similarly, Woodward's interpretative statements came first from a broad-ranging examination of a fifty-year period of southern history and then from a stimulating but not exhaustively researched study of segregation's sixty-year history. Thus, the theories that reinvigorated the study of disfranchisement and permeated the subsequent literature possessed impressive authorial pedigrees but lacked a convincing or exhaustive grounding in the documentary historical evidence.

    The question of who the disfranchisers were and what their aims had been obviously needed closer examination in order to settle the existing contradictions and uncertainties within these provocative interpretations. In The Shaping of Southern Politics, published in 1974, J. Morgan Kousser, one of Woodward's students at Yale University, sought to bring order to the confusion. Based on considerable research in newspapers and the legislative and electoral records of southern states and employing the new techniques of computer-based statistical analysis, Kousser's study provided the thorough archival and quantitative research so long overdue. As a result, he was able to refute several of the propositions formulated by Key and Woodward about suffrage restriction and disfranchisement in the late nineteenth century. First, Kousser found that the movement was not initiated by lower-class whites or the Populist or Republican opposition—it came neither from below nor from outside the Democratic Party. Second, he discovered that the forces behind suffrage restriction had a very definite interest and identity and were not just whatever groups happened to be in power when the black vote became a burning issue. Having rejected the ancillary generalizations proposed by Key and Woodward, Kousser reaffirmed their primary thesis that the conservative Democrats, mainly located in the black belt, were the prime movers. "Within the Democratic party," he concluded, "the chief impetus for restriction came from the black belt members."[9] A few pages earlier, he had noted that they were "always socioeconomically privileged."[10] Self-consciously, this group shaped the new electoral system and "stood to benefit from it most."[11] As members of a privileged elite, Kousser maintained, these men also expressed contempt and hostility toward the lower-class and uneducated whites whose votes they could not control and whose right to suffrage they questioned. They disfranchised these whites as willingly as they deprived blacks of the vote.[12] Thus, the conflict among whites that Woodward had emphasized was still very much in evidence in Kousser's interpretation, although it was based more on class differences than on rivalry between the upcountry and the black belt.

    Another important aspect of the debate over the views of Key and Woodward centered on the question of whether disfranchisement merely ratified and legitimized a drastic reduction in the southern electorate already accomplished by other means. Employing another French term besides "Bourbon coup d'état," Key had claimed that disfranchisement legalized a "fait accompli" engineered by violence, intimidation, vote fraud, and so on. Kousser found this distinction between de facto and de jure suffrage restriction to be inaccurate, for the vote was reduced and restricted very effectively during the 1880s and into the 1890s by laws—election laws and registration laws in particular. The law was therefore instrumental before and during the episode of disfranchisement at the turn of the century. Independently of Kousser, two leading political scientists, Jerrold G. Rusk and John J. Stucker, also examined the role of the law in reducing the southern electorate in the late nineteenth century and found it as ubiquitous and effective an instrument as Kousser had.[13] Since legislation was used to restrict suffrage before the 1890s, disfranchisement during and after that decade did not simply give a legal veneer to a system already achieved by nonlegal means.

    Key's fait accompli thesis may have been refuted convincingly, but some of the other interpretative matters that Kousser attempted to settle have not been so easily disposed of. Four in particular demand further investigation. First, erasing the distinction between legal and nonlegal methods of restricting the vote overlooks another difference—that between statutory and constitutional law. This difference has to be recognized when trying to understand disfranchisement, for disfranchisement always involved constitutional revision, unlike reducing the vote through laws governing how elections are conducted, which are acts of legislation and therefore statutory in form. Furthermore, disfranchisement around 1900 was aimed specifically at redefining the qualifications for voting and taking away the right to vote, both of which occur in and through constitutions, not statutes.

    Second, elision of the difference between disfranchisement and suffrage restriction gives the impression that reducing the southern electorate from Reconstruction until about 1910, the period covered by Kousser's book, was a continuous process throughout which the law, whether statutory or constitutional, was employed with only minor shifts in degree.[14] In actuality, the period should be divided into two phases. In the first phase, the vote was manipulated by election laws of various levels of ingenuity and Democratic election officials of varying degrees of criminality. This stage, which was characterized by manipulation of the vote, lasted from 1880 through the early 1890s. In the second phase, the vote was eliminated by constitutional means rather than being manipulated and controlled as before. Disfranchisement, as this phase spanning the early 1890s through 1908 is accurately designated, marked the final stage of a campaign for suffrage reduction aimed primarily at African Americans that had begun at the end of Reconstruction. To distinguish it from the preceding phase of "vote manipulation," disfranchisement can be described as "voter elimination."

    Third, the identification of the disfranchisers as wealthy and privileged Democrats overlooks a number of other elements in the struggle over disfranchisement. For example, the black belt Democrats were not always at the forefront of each state's campaign. Their role and significance varied from state to state, and on occasion, they either initially opposed the initiative or were reluctant to support it. Furthermore, the dualism of upcountry and black belt that has pervaded all interpretations of disfranchisement obscures the role of other independent organizations and groups within the Democratic Party, or even outside it, as was the case in Georgia. For example, suffrage reformers like the New Orleans Citizens' League or reform factions and antimachine insurgents within the Democratic Party that became identified as progressives after 1900 sometimes played a vital, even primary, role in initiating disfranchisement.[15] The proponents of disfranchisement operated within a more complex and diverse Democratic Party than the anachronistic black county-white county dichotomy allowed for.

    Fourth, there is still considerable disagreement about the identity of the intended victims of disfranchisement. Was the elimination of white voters as important as the removal of blacks? Or perhaps their removal was less important but they were nevertheless targeted for eradication. Or was their obliteration the real objective, with the removal of blacks merely secondary? Alternatively, were blacks the real quarry, with the loss of white voters an unintended or at least acceptable consequence? Since these questions seek to reveal motive and intention, they are difficult to answer. But surely in campaigns undertaken in full public view, as these were, the motives of the protagonists could not have been obscured entirely.

    These four issues are the central aspects of disfranchisement still in need of clarification and resolution that this study attempts to address.

    A number of books dealing with disfranchisement have appeared in recent years. Among them are John W. Cell's The Highest Stage of White Supremacy: The Origins of Segregation in South Africa and the American South (1982); Joel Williamson's The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation (1984); Edward L. Ayers's The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction (1992); Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore's Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (1996); and Grace Elizabeth Hale's Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (1998). These studies mark a revival of interest in the South at the turn of the century, a welcome development that has been accompanied by a shift of emphasis toward social and cultural history and the introduction of newer methods and approaches employed by historians.

    Although they are insightful and intriguing, these works have not really addressed the issues and concerns raised by earlier historians of disfranchisement, nor have they offered convincing explanations of why and how disfranchisement occurred. Instead, their focus has been directed elsewhere. They have either turned their attention to the broader social and cultural context in which disfranchisement took place or injected into the story of disfranchisement elements overlooked or unimagined by earlier historians. An example of the former is Williamson's depiction of disfranchisement as the outcome of an ideological conflict between two theories of race relations, radicalism and conservatism, which he presents as disembodied notions without identifying particular individuals or groups that supported them. The latter approach is best represented by Gilmore's examination of the instrumental role played by women during the "white supremacy" and disfranchisement campaigns in North Carolina around 1900 and their subsequent influence within the restricted electorate created by disfranchisement as they pressed for women's right to vote. But neither approach contributes significantly to an explanation of why disfranchisement was undertaken or how it was carried out successfully and by whom.

    A common feature in these more recent studies has been the view that the political and racial system that emerged with disfranchisement and segregation was something new. Williamson refers to the "new orthodoxy" and Gilmore to a "new racism for a new order."[16] Hale concludes that "by the early twentieth century, whites were constructing modern racial identity," and Ayers states that disfranchisement and segregation established a "new order" in the turn-of-the-century South that came "with heavy costs."[17] The innovation and change that characterized the system of race relations emerging around 1900 cannot be denied. Moreover, this change was occurring in a society in which progressive reform was becoming a political and social force. Nevertheless, the newness and modernity of the racial system were far from unqualified. Both imposed heavy burdens not only on the system's victims but also on the economy and polity as a whole. The basic thrust and purpose of the rearranged racial order was to ensure the subordination of African Americans and the dominance of the political and economic elite of the Democratic Party. Although it may have assumed new forms and addressed new conditions, the system was intended to reassert a "white supremacy" that had proved elusive since the end of the war with a firmness and rigor unattainable since slavery. Thus, the newness of the form should not be confused with the enduring substance of the South's system of racial domination.

    Besides differentiating between the form and substance of southern race relations, historians need to distinguish between the context in which disfranchisement occurred and the process of disfranchisement itself. This study emphasizes the latter. So its objective is to examine the movement, or campaign, for disfranchisement and thereby to identify the political and social forces that initiated it, the ways in which they achieved their purpose, and the similarities and connections among the states as they engaged in the struggle for disfranchisement. Recent scholarship does not take such an approach. Instead, it focuses on particular aspects of the disfranchising episode and the social and cultural context in which it happened. Although these perspectives are often valuable and revealing, they do not concentrate on the mode of disfranchisement or the deployment of political power within it. The questions of who did what to whom, how, and why are perhaps old ones, but they are still essential. It is my view that these questions about disfranchisement have yet to be answered convincingly and conclusively.

    This brief overview of the historical writing on disfranchisement suggests that generalization of the sort that historians like to produce, indeed are required to produce, may prove difficult in this case. Reflecting this elusiveness perhaps, the historiography on disfranchisement has been characterized by speculation and uncertainty. Part of the problem is the lack of a single exhaustive study of disfranchisement in its entirety, a deficiency that this volume is intended to rectify. But much of the difficulty lies in the failure to recognize that disfranchisement occurred on two levels. The first is regionwide. The movement that spread across all of the southern states in the decades before and after 1900 was generated by conditions and attitudes common to all of them. General statements about this regional context can be made, and they are presented in chapters 1, 12, and 14. Less easily encompassed by a generalization are the events that occurred over two decades in ten or so states, each with a very different demography, economy, and geography. Each time disfranchisement happened, it did so within a very distinctive set of political circumstances. This second level is local, and it focuses on the process of disfranchisement rather than the conditions for it. Although generalization about these particular instances is difficult, one of the primary objectives of this study is to develop just such an inclusive formulation through a comparison of the process in each of the disfranchising states.

Excerpted from Struggle for Mastery by Michael Perman. Copyright © 2001 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
Marked throughout by its lucidity, intelligence and learning. . . . The tale [Perman tells] is not unknown; but it has never been told better. . . . [The book is] full of unexpected observations which stick in the mind. . . . This is a book which every historian of the South will have to read and ponder.—Times Literary Supplement

This book is the definitive account of how the disfranchisers disenfranchised.—American Historical Review

[Perman] has cleared the way for fresh investigations into this very vexed period.—Historian

[An] important book. . . . Perman is the leading authority on the political history of the post-Civil War South, and his mastery of the subject is fully in evidence.—Chicago Tribune

This study is a major contribution to the history of the New South. It is about as close to a definitive history of disfranchisement as is possible to imagine. By demonstrating conclusively that the governing purpose was the racist one of purging the electorate of blacks, and that the decrease in white voting was an accidental byproduct, Perman advances the historiography of suffrage restriction in a decisive way.—George M. Fredrickson, Stanford University

Enlightening. . . . An important contribution on this crucial subject in southern history.—Gulf South Historical Review

An effective combination of political anecdote, biographical sketch, well-informed state analyses, and cautious yet significant generalizations about regional race-based politics. . . . Using a wide range of both primary and secondary sources and bolstered by quantitative analyses, the book makes an important contribution to our understanding of late 19th- and early 20th-century Southern and national politics.—Choice

By far the most thorough examination of disfranchisement yet produced, and the amount of new detail is impressive.—Southern Historian

Perman's volume is surely the fullest narrative we will ever have of the legal, constitutional, and political mechanics of disfranchisement. . . . Thoroughly researched, clearly considered, and illustrated with state maps and pictures of frowning white politicians, this work is monumentally solid.—Civil War History

Michael Perman has given us the fullest account of a central event in southern and African American history: the stripping of the vote from black men. Perman deals with disfranchisement in its many variations, portraying the drama of each state's struggles in powerful narrative and penetrating analysis.—Edward L. Ayers, University of Virginia


Meet the Author

Michael Perman is Research Professor in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His books include Emancipation and Reconstruction, 1862-1879 and the award-winning Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869-1879.

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