Mississippi, state, United States: Disenfranchisement and Sharecropping

Disenfranchisement and Sharecropping

In Reconstruction days the Republicans could win only with solid African-American support. After Reconstruction blacks were virtually disenfranchised. White supremacy was bolstered by the Constitution of 1890, later used as a model by other Southern states; under its terms a prospective voter could be required to read and interpret any of the Constitution's provisions. Because at the turn of the century most black Mississippians could not read (neither could many whites, but the test was rarely applied to them) and because the county registrar could disqualify prospective voters who disagreed with his interpretation of the Constitution, African Americans were essentially disenfranchised.

From the ruins of the shattered plantation economy rose the sharecropping system, and the merchant and the banker replaced the planter in having the largest financial interest in farming. Too often the system made the sharecroppers, white as well as black, little more than economic slaves. The landowners, however, maintained their hold on politics until 1904, when the small farmers, still the dominant voting group, elected James K. Vardaman governor. Nevertheless this agrarian revolt did not alter a deep-seated obscurantism that was reflected in the Jim Crow laws (1904) and in the ban on teaching evolution in the public schools (1926). Mississippi has made attempts to wipe out illiteracy, but it still has the highest illiteracy rate in the country. Another reflection of the social structure of the state was Prohibition, put into effect in 1908 and not repealed at the local level until 1959.

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