The Mississippi precedent: the education test of 1890

In The American Commonwealth, Bryce canvassed possible solutions to the Negro problem, including the feasibility of deporting Blacks – all eight million – to Africa. He also drew attention to the Mississippi legislation of 1890, which for the first time used an ‘education test’ to exclude otherwise qualified Black voters from the electoral roll. Prevented by the 14th and 15th Amendments from disenfranchising Blacks on the grounds of race, the southern state of Mississippi led the way among self-styled white men’s countries in deploying an education test – in this case a comprehension test – to achieve racial exclusion. The law required that to be registered a voter ‘shall be able to read any section of the Constitution, or be able to understand the same when read to him, or to give a reasonable interpretation thereof’.

The requirement that voters demonstrate a degree of literacy was not itself new. The importance of literacy and education to the exercise of self-government was central to republican understandings of citizenship in the United States, as Matt Jacobsen has pointed out and, it was the northern states of Connecticut (1855) and Massachusetts (1857) that first stipulated that electors should be able to read the Constitution. Massachusetts also required that electors be able to write their names.

The 1890 Constitutional Convention of Mississippi marked a new departure, however, in the recommendation of an education test as a means to effect racial discrimination. The Supreme Court of Mississippi commented on the ways in which Blacks’ racial characteristics rendered them unfit to exercise the suffrage:

Within the field of permissible action under the limitations proposed by the Federal Constitution, the Convention swept the field of expedients to obstruct the exercise of suffrage by the Negro race. By reasons of its previous condition of servitude and dependency, this race had acquired or accentuated certain peculiarities of habit, temperament, and of character, which clearly distinguished it as a race from the whites.[25]

Although not ostensibly discriminatory, the educational test permitted race distinctions in several ways, as Gilbert Stephenson observed in his 1910 study of Race Distinctions in American Law :

In the first place, registration officers may give a difficult passage of the Constitution to a Negro, and a very easy passage to a white person, or vice versa. He may permit a halting reading by one and require fluent reading by the other. He may let illegible scratching on paper suffice for the signature of one and require of the other a legible handwriting. But race discriminations in such cases rest with the officers; they do not have their basis in the law itself.[26]

Other southern states followed suit: South Carolina in 1895, Louisiana in 1898, North Carolina in 1900, Alabama in 1901, Virginia in 1901, and Georgia in 1908. The legislation had the desired effect, as Stephenson reported:

In one county in Mississippi, with a population of about 8,000 whites and 11,700 Negroes in 1900, there were only twenty-five or thirty qualified Negro voters in 1908, the rest being disqualified, it is said, on the educational test. In another county, with 30,000 Negroes, only about 175 were registered voters ... As a general rule, taking the country at large, about one person in five is a male of voting age. In Iowa four out of five possible voters have actually voted in the last four elections; in Georgia, a State of nearly the same population, the proportion is one to six ... These figures show that the ratio of actual voters to total population in the Southern States is astoundingly smaller than in other States.[27]

In The American Commonwealth, Bryce observed that the strategy of racial exclusion in Mississippi had proven so effective, that it had recommended itself to ‘a British colony where the presence of a large coloured population has posed a problem not dissimilar to that we have been examining’.[28] At his suggestion, the Cape Colony in South Africa followed the Mississippi precedent in its Franchise and Ballot Act of 1892, which for the first time applied an education test as well as a property test to further restrict the number of non-whites who could vote there.