Williams v. Mississippi (1898): The Debate over Black Suffrage

Post-Civil War Black Franchisement, Courtesy of PBS.

In his book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (New York, 2004), Michael J. Klarman states the importance of Williams v. Mississippi as a catalyst for African Americans challenging the field of disfranchisement.  While the eventual decision in the case refuted the objections brought up during the trial, Klarman states that the trial “played little role in advancing black disfranchisement” (52).

Klarman discusses the importance of the two challenges brought forward by the defense in Williams v. Mississippi and, through these points, the lack of equal rights of the Southern states such as Mississippi become apparent even at the turn of the twentieth century, years after the emancipation of the slaves.  Henry Williams, the black defendant in the case accused and convicted by an all-white jury of murder, as well as his attorney Cornelius J. Jones believed that because Mississippi did not allow blacks to serve on grand juries, the murder charge against Williams should be rescinded.  Williams also believed that his credentials for voting were more than adequate, as, according to the Constitution of 1890, one must be a qualified voter in order to serve on a jury in Mississippi.  The second challenge came with Williams and Jones believing that the qualifications adopted in the Constitution of 1890 were particularly discriminatory towards blacks and even poor whites.  Elections in the state of Mississippi had been incredibly violent for a number of years because of whites and blacks conflicting at voting stations.  Eventually, to attempt to quell the distress, blacks were effectively disfranchised with the institution of a poll tax and literacy test in Constitution of 1890.  This, however, was unrecognized by the Supreme Court at the time and a unanimous vote of 9-0 sent Williams and Jones to defeat.

While there are no notable books only detailing the events concerning the trial of Williams v. Mississippi, there are several journal articles which provide mention to it in order to emphasize the lack of progression the United States had made in terms of gaining racial equality between whites and blacks.  The American Journal of Sociology article “Ballot Manipulation and the ‘Menace of Negro Domination:’ Racial Threat and Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 1850-2002” by Angela Behrens, Christopher Uggen, and Jeff Manza details the correlation between racism and voting rights, especially in the South, and outlines a number of cases concerning black suffrage, such as Williams v. Mississippi.  Southern disfranchisement, especially in Mississippi, as well as the trial of Williams v. Mississippi is detailed in a British Journal of Political Science article titled “Without Fear or Shame: Lynching, Capital Punishment and the Subculture of Violence in the American South” by James W. Clarke.

Chief Justice Melville Fuller, Courtesy of American National Biography.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at the time of the Williams v. Mississippi case in 1898 was the long serving Melville Fuller.  The best source documenting the progression of the period in which Fuller served as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is The Chief Justiceship of Melville W. Fuller, 1888-1910 by James W. Ely, Jr. This book by Ely adequately describes the court of Fuller as one geared toward probusiness and racist views as evidenced by the cases Lochner v. New York and Plessy v. Ferguson, two landmark trials around the turn of the twentieth century in America.

The other Supreme Court justices who participated in the unanimous 9-0 vote, including John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenter of Plessy v. Ferguson and supporter of integration in the South, do not have any notable biographies focused solely on their lives, however they receive a great deal of mention in biographies of Melville Fuller as well as books detailing the lives of Supreme Court justices.

There are many web sources that have the transcription of the Williams v. Mississippi trial, however sources that provide overviews of the case, including the overview and background, are harder to come by online.  Websites such as Mississippi History Now and PBS detail the Constitution of 1890 in Mississippi as well as the background of the voting issues which were brought to the forefront of the Williams vs. Mississippi trial.


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