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Making the U.S. a Democracy


Voter registration August 25, 1965, at the Magnolia Motel in Prentiss (Miss.), following passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Federal examiner C. A. Phillips administers voter registration oath to Joe Ella Moore. Moncrief Collection photograph, item#:339, Mississippi Department of Archives & History

The U.S. touts itself as the world’s oldest surviving democracy, but the nation has only qualified as a true democracy since the creation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Prior to that, white Mississippians could murder Black residents with impunity for daring to register to vote. Race terrorists committed brazen acts within the light of day, such as the 1966 firebombing of the home of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer. It took more than 30 years for Klan leader Sam Bowers to face conviction for Dahmer’s murder, but in Mississippi the vast majority of victims never found justice. It was a flagrant terrorism that could not exist without the tacit approval of the federal government, which passed no anti-lynching laws until 2022, and no significant laws preventing vote participation until 1965.

Registering to vote while Black in pre-civil rights Mississippi could easily lead to murder, but it was almost certain to lead to unemployment. Employment in Unita Blackwell’s pre-industrial Mississippi Delta was chained to agriculture, and also tied to pleasing a white boss because Black-owned farms were rare in the state.

Harold Dahmer, 26, looks over the smoking ruins of his father's house and car, firebombed by the Klan in 1966. Harold, an Army veteran, survived the attack. His father, civil rights martyr, and American hero, Vernon Ferdinand Dahmer, did not. A murderer would not face justice until 1998. Moncrief Collection photograph, Mississippi Department of Archives & History

Administration, Soil Conservation Service and the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service divisions denied thousands of African American farmers access to services to train staff, diversify crops, and raise production. The Guardian points out that Black farm ownership was at its peak in 1920 with almost one million African-Americans owning farmland. Those 949,889 owners dropped to only 48,697 by 2021, or just 1.4 percent of the nation’s 3.4 million farmers, primarily as a result of decades of U.S. Department of Agriculture discrimination, coupled with racist lending practices of local white-owned banks.

Descendants of state Sen. Stephen B. Blackwell, a relative of Unita Blackwell's husband, Jeremiah,  sold most of his land during a time of intense economic and political pressure from white landowners and hostile banks.

Willie Bunton, who served as one of Issaquena County's first Black supervisors since Reconstruction, claims Black residents were intimately aware of the value of Black farmers. Bunton says Black residents resented African-American neighbors who caved to economic and political pressure and sold their land to white buyers, but they were often powerless or too impoverished to help. Even the family of Mayor Blackwell’s husband, Jeremiah, sold the brunt of property the family had accrued since Reconstruction.

Federal indifference and racist lending practices weren't required to remove a Black landowner. Mississippi law was a farce in the hands of white jurors - who were the only kinds of jurors up until 1966 - and they did not generally prosecute white assailants who murdered their Black neighbors.

The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice division of Northeastern University claims Rev. Isaac Simmons controlled 278 acres of debt-free land in Amite County in the 1940s. White interlopers seeking oil on Simmons’ property began to stake claims on it. When Simmons hired an attorney to dispute their claim terrorists dragged him from his home, beat him and shot him dead. The FBI investigated, but turned the case over to local, white prosecutors. Despite a state grand jury returning indictments against six men, the white jury failed to find one suspect guilty. The prosecutor obtained dismissals of the remaining cases.

Cotton Shackles

The predatory justice system, federal indifference and incessant economic pressure helped white farmers dominate the land. Their territory sprawled across the Delta, stuffing it with cotton and agriculture and squeezed Black communities into small, impoverished hamlets that grew more destitute with each generation. The racist trifecta ensured white residents were also the primary employers, and they used their exclusive power for more than a century to stifle democracy.

In 1964, Blackwell and her husband, Jeremiah, lost their jobs the day after their employer discovered their attempt to register. Since farming dominated the Issaquena economy, she and her family had no income outside the fields. Racists in charge of county government also made sure to deny their family welfare payments, against federal guidelines. These were the days preceding the “Great Society” refinements at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In those days, Mississippi officials could work in tandem with white farmers to keep the punishment coming for would-be voter applicants. They could deny benefits for any number of frivolous reasons, including getting fired during the growing season.

Acknowledging the threat of unemployment as a weak link in registration efforts The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee covered the Blackwells’ losses, sending them $11 every two weeks. But the SNCC could not support everybody fired for registering. For this reason, rare Black farmers and middle-income African-Americans like Mayersville resident Henry Sias were a priceless financial contributor to the Civil Rights effort. Sias and others like him opened their homes and wallets to neighbors working within the movement.

White landowners owned many of the shacks housing sharecroppers throughout the Delta, and they further acted to stall the movement by evicting Black farmers who attempted to register.

"They were afraid of having no place to stay," Blackwell told one interviewer, and added that organizations like the American Friends Service Committee bought land and homes for evicted farmers. "We ended up having to buy a few pieces of land around here where people could get a (living space) lot because they were put off the plantations. People were thrown out of jobs. Some folks never did get settled again. (Eviction) sort of threw them off psychologically."

Blackwell said the retaliatory firings and evictions only served to further cement her determination, but economic peril could barely compare to the physical threats.

Violence was Real

White law officials and residents were openly hostile to Black people standing in front of courthouses, registering to vote. Residents were bold enough, in fact, to gang up and shout at Blackwell and her husband and others who dared to apply in June of 1964. Blackwell personally recalls being harassed by both white farmers and the local sheriff.

The hounding began with the sheriff of Issaquena County lobbing loosely veiled threats, according to Blackwell in her book ‘Barefootin’: Life Lessons From the Road to Freedom’.

“Them (SNCC) outside agitators in town have got ya’ll all riled up,” he said. “They’ll go back to wherever they come from in a little while, but you niggars gotta live here all the time, you know. If I was you, I’d get myself on back home.”

The sheriff was likely J.A. Darnell, who was himself a planter chosen by an almost exclusively white electorate. Darnell then left the scene and abandoned Black applicants to the cat-callers.

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee workers had coached registrants on what to expect from authorities and segregationist counter-protestors. They knew how best to keep violence to a minimum. Still, nothing could prepare applicants for the dread.

Guns were the dominant tool for curtailing democracy in America since the Supreme Court’s tragic abandonment of Reconstruction to terrorists. Klan leaders and racist fanatics routinely lauded gun ownership as a not-so-subtle warning against African Americans who dared to "buck the system," according to Mayersville residents who spoke with our researchers.

“Didn’t used to be gun racks hanging in trucks in the early days, but around that time (the 1960s), if you were white and had a gun rack in your truck, we knew what kind of man you were,” said Mayersville resident Annie Cartlidge in a 2022 interview. Cartlidge aided the civil rights effort in Mayersville and worked with Unita Blackwell during her time as mayor.

On the day Blackwell first tried to register, she claims about half a dozen trucks parked around the courthouse, with occupants shouting, “Go home niggar,” and other obscenities.

“Niggars. Niggars. Go home, niggars," they chanted from their vehicles.

After more than an hour of abuse, the sheriff returned and demanded applicants leave more forcibly.

“Ya’ll go on home. Get on away from here,” he ordered.

Emboldened pests then climbed from their trucks and surrounded the registrants, many of whom included Blackwell’s friends and neighbors, and the enigmatic Sias family. Harassment graduated up to standing mere feet from applicants, hefting rifles, and planting registrants with murderous glares.

For untold decades, those same glares had been a death sentence. The value of Black lives plummeted the day they stopped being free labor. White-run state courts and prosecutors sanctioned the murder of Black Mississippians by refusing to prosecute or convict white killers. The Supreme Court began upholding that criminal negligence less than 10 years after the conclusion of the Civil War.

With the state justice system’s blessing, white terrorists could fearlessly murder Black residents to keep them in line. Motives could be as trivial as failing to give way to white pedestrians on a sidewalk. Other triggers included accusations of whistling, failing to say ‘sir’, or merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One particularly notorious trigger was daring to hold a white man’s gaze.

Blackwell and the eight brave activists standing in line with her that day knew the historic risk of prolonged, defiant stares. They knew they were committing a lynching offense stretching all the way back to 1877, but Blackwell said she and other would-be voters did not look away.

“These white men—people I saw around town, who sometimes even smiled and spoke to me—were so consumed with hatred that one of them might actually kill just to keep me from registering to vote,” Blackwell recounted.

Threats and intimidation were only one barrier, however. White legislators had made a mockery of democracy, erecting countless barriers to voting, including poll taxes and felony disenfranchisement laws. Even today, felony disenfranchisement laws dating back to the state’s bigoted 1890 constitution are still on Mississippi’s books, and actively keeping almost 16 percent of Black voters from voting. Mississippi’s white state governor and legislators supported the Jim Crow laws as recently as the 2022 legislative session.

Another particularly daunting barrier included a poll test, consisting of a short essay analysis of an excerpt of the state or federal Constitution. Blackwell attempted to pass Mississippi’s discriminatory polling test three times in 1964, testing her wits against test questions that many of the state’s white electorate could not pass. She successfully registered in the fall of that year.

Sample Mississippi poll test questions for registration. (1955)

With some of the worst voting barriers lifted, a flurry of new Black voters soon followed in Blackwell’s wake, as well as a legion of new Black elected officials. However, today Mississippi remains a state with some of the most onerous voter registration requirements in the nation. It is one of only a few states that do not allow no excuse in-person or mail-in voting as of 2022, and while many states mail out absentee ballot forms to facilitate voting Mississippi is the only state to require registrants provide two notarized documents to vote by mail.

Vicious, undemocratic gerrymandering also undermine state Senate and House districts and waters down the Black vote with each new Census. Gerrymanders similarly infect state Supreme Court districts.


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