Excerpt from Black Votes Count

by Frank R. Parker


            “From the summer of 1962 to the spring of 1963, Leflore County, a predominantly black county in the Mississippi Delta in northwest Mississippi, was the testing ground for democracy for the civil rights movement. The Leflore County voter registration campaign was part of a massive effort of the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), the Mississippi civil rights umbrella organization, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Atlanta-based activist civil rights group, in the predominantly black delta region....

            In 1962, on the eve of COFO’s arrival, only 268 of the county’s 13,567 black adults were registered to vote (1.98 percent), although 70 percent of the white adults were registered. As a result of SNCC;s organizing efforts, hundreds of black people attempted to register. Not only did the county registrar refuse to register black applicants, but this voter registration campaign was met with a reign of terror from the white community. The SNCC office was attacked by a group of armed whites, forcing the SNCC workers to flee through a second story window; the county board of supervisors cut off the federal surplus food program upon which most black families were dependent; SNCC workers were arrested on trumped-up charges; and black homes were shot into and black businesses and the SNCC office were burned.

            In February 1963, on the highway outside Greenwood, the county seat, three whites in a car pulled alongside of and fired a burst of gunfire into a car containing Robert Moses, SNCC leader and COFO voter registration director; Randolph Blackwell of the Voter Education Project (VEP) in Atlanta, the primary funding source for the campaign; and SNCC worker Jimmie Travis. Travis, the driver, was seriously wounded in the neck and shoulder.

...In March, shots were fired into the home of Dewey Greene, a voter registration worker and father of two SNCC workers, and more than one hundred black people marched on city hall in protest. Even before the more highly publicized incidents in Birmingham, Alabama, the demonstrators in Greenwood were met by a line of armed police officers, and a police dog attacked the marchers. When the marchers retreated to a local black church, the police waded into the crowd and arrested Moses and seven other SNCC organizers of the voter registration effort who were then convicted of disorderly conduct, sentenced to four months in jail, and fined $200 each. The sense of terror evoked by the police suppression of the Leflore County voter registration campaign was recalled in a 1989 New Yorker interview with Marian Wright Edelman, who, as a third-year Yale Law School student, went to Mississippi during her spring break to provide legal assistance to the movement. As Edelman told author Calvin Tomkins,

My last day in Greenwood, Bob (Moses) took a group of people down to the courthouse to register. He walked at the head of that scraggly bunch of courageous people; I was at the end of the line, behind an old man on crutches. This was the first time I’d seen police dogs in action, and I’ve been scared of them ever since. If I see a German shepherd on the street, to this day I’ll cross over to avoid him. The cops came with the dogs, and led them to attack us. I remember         seeing a dog jump on Bob Moses and tear

his pants, and then it was just a terrifying scene-people running away, Bob and the other SNCC kids getting arrested, and throwing me their car keys as they were being led off.

            The Justice Department filed a lawsuit seeking to void the convictions and to enjoin police interference with the voter registration effort. But the lawsuit was dismissed when the Justice Department agreed to a deal under which all charges against the SNCC organizers were dropped, without any court order protecting the voter registration effort....

            Black voters in Mississippi were barred from participating as a significant force in the electoral politics of the state until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed...


            The discriminatory voter registration requirements that blocked black registration efforts prior to 1965 derived from the Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890, the first southern constitutional convention called to deny blacks the vote after Reconstruction. Black citizens in Mississippi had been denied electoral participation since 1875 by violence, intimidation, and vote fraud, but white political leaders thought the convention was necessary to “legalize” this exclusion of blacks from the political process. As one delegate to the convention stated, “The avowed purpose of calling (this) convention was to restrict the negro vote.”

            The 1890 constitutional convention enacted the “Mississippi Plan” of southern disfranchisement that subsequently was copied by other southern states. Because the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited express denial of the right to vote to black citizens, the 1890 convention adopted a series of indirect measures that included requirements that an applicant for registration (1) must be able to read any section of the state constitution, or be able to understand a section when read to him, or give a reasonable interpretation of one (changed in 1954 to read and understand any section of the state constitution); (2) must live in the state for two years and in the election district for one year before being eligible to register; (3) must register to vote four months before an election; (4) must not have been convicted of a list of disfranchising crimes that the framers of the constitution thought blacks were most prone to commit; and (5) must pay a poll tax every year to be able to vote. These requirements were later supplemented by subsequent constitutional amendments and state laws designed to stiffen the prohibitions against blacks registering to vote, including requirements that an applicant must demonstrate an understanding of the duties and obligations of citizenship and possess “good moral character”.

            During the 1960s the literacy test was the chief instrument of black disenfranchisement, and black applicants frequently were disqualified if the written responses on their voter registration forms were not “letter perfect”. To register to vote in Mississippi before 1965, applicants had to demonstrate their literacy by filling out in their own handwriting and without any assistance a long, complicated voter registration form asking detailed questions regarding occupation and business, residence, and criminal record. Prospective voters had to copy any section of the Mississippi Constitution chosen by the registrar, write a correct interpretation of that section, and then explain in writing “your understanding of the duties and obligations of citizenship under a constitutional form of government.” This was no easy task because, as Mississippi politician Theodore Bilbo once remarked, the Mississippi Constitution is a document, “that damm few white men and no niggers at all can explain.” Any mistake or error in filling out the form, or any answer which the registrar considered to be incorrect, was cause for disqualification.

            One of the key features of Mississippi’s registration procedure was the amount of discretion granted to county registrars to discriminate against black applicants. In some counties, blacks were given extremely difficult sections of the state constitution to write and interpret, while whites got easy sections and illegal assistance in filling out the form. Registrars often failed black applicants for making simple mistakes, such as signing the form on the wrong line, while routinely passing whites who made similar or worse mistakes. Registrars rejected black applicants who could not interpret long sections of the state constitution that even some registrars could not interpret. ...

            In this obstacle course was not enough, under state laws passed in 1962 the names of those taking the voter registration test were published in a local newspaper once a week for two weeks. While the stated purpose of this publication requirement was to permit voters to challenge the qualifications of applicants, many black applicants found that after their name had been published they were arrested on spurious charges; subjected to physical violence, economic reprisals, or loss of employment; or found themselves unable to get jobs. Applicants were not informed whether or not they passed the voter registration test; instead, they had to return to the registrar’s office thirty days after applying. State law did not permit the registrar to give failed applicants the reason for rejection (except for bad moral character). Providing such information was considered to be illegal “help” with the voter registration test. To be fully qualified to vote, voters also had to pay a $2 poll tax each year well in advance of the election. In many counties, the sheriff simply refused to accept poll tax payments from blacks.