Mississippi elections had always been violent as whites
tried to prevent blacks from voting, and many courageous
blacks and whites who opposed Democratic rule were murdered.
To end this violence, a compromise was reached between
the planters and their challengers. Blacks would be constitutionally
disfranchised and corruption and violence at the polls
would stop. A constitutional convention was called to
theoretically legally disfranchise all illiterate voters.
But everyone knew the real purpose. James Kimble Vardaman,
later Governor of the state, boasted of the obvious purpose
of the convention. "There is no use to equivocate
or lie about the matter. Mississippi's constitutional
convention was held for no other purpose than to eliminate
the nigger from politics;
not the ignorant -- but the nigger." Whites warned
blacks not to interfere in the change. Marsh Cook, a white Republican in Jasper County, courageously challenged the Democrats for a seat to the Constitutional Convention in spite of death threats. Cook was ambushed and murdered on a
lonely country road -- one of the first whites to be killed after Reconstruction for advocating the black vote, according to his great-great-granddaughter Kitty Cook Hoyt. Isaiah Montgomery, founder of Mound Bayou
and the only African American delegate to the convention,
had been invited because he was willing to support disfranchisement.
Blacks were outraged at Montgomery's speech. They called
Montgomery a "traitor" and "Judas"
for not challenging disfranchisement. The delegates rewrote
the constitution. It required all voters to take a literacy
test if they tried to vote.
"On and after the first day of January, A. D. 1892,
every elector shall, in addition to the foregoing qualifications,
be able to read any section of the constitution of this
state; or he shall be able to understand
the same when read to him, or give a reasonable interpretation
thereof." Power was given to registrars to interpret
the test. Since all registrars were white and politically
appointed, it was highly unlikely they would allow any
black to pass the test on his own merits. The Supreme
Court chose to disregard the fact that the new law was
aimed at disfranchising blacks. "Besides, the operation
of the constitution and laws is not limited by their language
or effects to one race. They reach weak and vicious white
men as well as weak and vicious black men, and whatever
is sinister in their intention, if anything, can be prevented
by both races by the exertion of that duty which voluntarily
pays taxes and refrains from crime." Once the court
gave the Mississippi constitution its blessing, other
states adopted the same means to disfranchise blacks.
More than 130,000 African Americans registered to vote in Louisiana in 1896; only 1,342 were registered in 1904.