David Frum

02.04.13

The Roots of Southern Voter Intimidation

In response to my posts on Robert Norrell's Booker T. Washington bio, a Mississippi friend sends this extract on voter suppression, Mississippi-style:

In 1906, Washington Lafayette Clayton - a Civil War veteran, lawyer, and native of my home of Itawamba County, Mississippi, set down on paper the reminiscences of a lifetime in the then Tupelo Journal.

His memories have been since published under the title Olden Times Revisited, and the following comes from the chapter dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War entitled 'Not a Good Wagon Mule to be Found':

Many of us remember and will ne'r forget the days from 1865 to 1875, ten eventful years in the history of our Southland. Of course it is impossible to paint in true colors the events of those years. Being under military rule part of the time, and under military power all this time, which means the same thing as military rule practically, we could do nothing openly that would alleviate our condition. What we did in the way of relief measures had to be done on the sly.

Young men were growing up who had never been in the war, but whose hands were itching to take hold of something by which they might signalize their entrance into life's arena by some action for the benefit and relief of their country and which might put a feather in their own caps that would in some degree look like they were worthy sons of worthy sires; and so they were ever ready to do anything which might be thought to even tend toward relief, and doubtless would have been guilty of many indiscretions but for the advice of older and wiser heads. But in the meantime, the negroes kept moving from bad to worse, led on by unworthy and often trifling white men. Under these circumstances many devices were resorted to to checkmate their political moves.

An old friend of mine, just before an election, happened to come into possession of a Republican ticket. He showed it to some of the Democratic leaders in an adjoining county and they were delighted to get it, saying it was the very thing they had been endeavoring to secure for some time. You see, before the Democrats came into power and passed a law that no picture or device of any kind should be printed on any ballot by which it could be distinguished and that all ballots should be alike, the ignorant negroes knew their Republican ticket by the picture that headed it, and not by the names which were printed thereon.

You see how easy it was for the "leading politicians" on our side to duplicate the ticket, how easy these bogus tickets could be placed in the hands of ignorant voters and how the count would show up on our side. Again, men did not scruple to take out the votes which were actually cast and substitute the Democratic ticket therefor, and ease their conscience by the thought that "all things are fair in war," and that the good of the country demanded this. Sometimes one means was used and sometimes others to accomplish such action. It was well known that the most of the leaders of the negroes, both white and black, were quite venal and ready for a bid in money to betray their party.

By this means, the ignorant voter was often deceived by his pretended friends, and made really to vote the Democratic ticket, when he thought he was voting for the other side. Sometimes the tickets were exchanged by the art of legerdemain, so to speak, and the innocent leader gave out the tickets which had been left in place of the genuine article. You see the picture was there all the same, and it was that by which they judged. But, after a few of such tricks had been played on them, they were more careful and some other scheme had to be resorted to. The rule of the black voter was always to line up in solid column at voting time. This was very distasteful to the white man.

Many means were resorted to to break up this custom. Sometimes the whites came to the polls with their cannons on the ground, booming them once in awhile while the white men stood 'round, and some of them occasionally fired off pistols or guns. There was nothing said to the negroes about not voting as they might please, and no intimidation whatever, but all the same the cannons were boomed and guns and pistols fired, and the negroes ran off and left the polls and never came back to vote.

Finally, in 1875, the whites decided they had had enough of it, and it must stop in some way. It was managed differently in different places. In Lee County we had a meeting of prominent workers for the cause and it was decided that everybody should be on a committee to make a general and close of the county one day before the election and press home to the negroes every argument we could to induce them to vote with us. I remember very well to have been on that canvass. We searched out the brother in black and told them one by one in as much as we could, and each squad of whites numbering as many as we well could, and one man talking for awhile and then another.

Many agreed to vote with us, but said it in such a way that we knew very well that they did not mean it. Many others were mum. On the next day when the polls were opened the whites were much and early on the ground, and when the negroes came in they did not present that solid black phalanx of column as they had formerly done. The truth is they had been informed that it was not very good manners.

The most of them, though, were very anxious to vote the Republican ticket. No violence was offered, but many whites would surround a negro voter and use all kind of arguments and persuasions to vote the Democratic ticket, and as each voter could be induced to cast his vote in that way, the entire white contingent would raise a yell that would have done honor to the old Rebel soldier's battle cry; and thus one by one the negroes were induced to fall into line, except a few who retired to the rear without voting at all. This took place throughout the state, and the Republican Party was put out of business in Mississippi.