How Mississippi’s Jim Crow Laws Still Haunt Black Voters Today

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Charles Caldwell, one of 16 Black delegates at the state’s post-war constitutional convention in 1868, pictured within a montage of the Mississippi Legislature in 1875. Caldwell was assassinated in 1875 part of “the Mississippi Plan” to maintain White political control. (LIBRARY OF CONGRESS PRINTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION)

After the U.S. Civil War, white supremacists used felony disenfranchisement to suppress the Black vote. Even now, restoring rights has hit a roadblock.


JA Guest Writer

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system, and Mississippi Today. Sign up for The Marshall Project’s Jackson newsletter (, and follow them on Instagram, TikTok, Reddit and Facebook.

Charles Caldwell was never meant to have a voice. Mississippi’s White ruling class made sure of it.

He was part of Mississippi’s silenced majority in 1860 — 436,600 enslaved people to 354,000 White people, according to the Census — who would be granted full citizenship after the Civil War. 

By 1868, Caldwell was one of 16 Black delegates at the state’s post-war constitutional convention, which extended the right to vote to all men and created a framework for public education.

Described in a White politician’s historical account of the Clinton Riot as “one of the most daring and desperate negroes of his day,” Caldwell was “the dominant factor in local Republican politics.”

In December 1875, Caldwell was lured to a cellar for a celebratory Christmas drink. He was ambushed — shot once from behind — and then carried into the street, where a White mob riddled him with bullets. Caldwell, who rose from servitude to become a state senator, was once again silenced. 

His murder was a calculated part of white supremacists’ post-war efforts, collectively known as the Mississippi Plan, to maintain political control by White men, whom freedmen outnumbered. In the post-war South, white supremacists used lynchings, massacres and intimidation to silence the Black people they once owned, then cemented racism into the state’s 1890 constitution to further restrict the Black vote. 

Although most other racist sections of Mississippi’s 1890 constitution were erased by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, one part of the plan continues to stalk Black voters today. Called felony disenfranchisement, the constitution takes away — for life — the right to vote upon conviction for several low-level crimes, like theft and bribery, that the 1890 drafters felt would be mostly committed by Black people.

A bill that would reinstate voting rights for thousands convicted of nonviolent offenses was passed by the Mississippi House of Representatives in March but died in the state Senate. Republicans control both chambers.

Section 241, the disenfranchisement clause of the constitution, has since been expanded and interpreted to cover 102 crimes. 

Why was voter disenfranchisement created? In 1890, state Rep. James K. Vardaman, who would later be elected governor, said, “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. … Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the [n-word] from politics.”

Over the past 30 years, approximately 55,000 Mississippians have lost their rights to vote due to felony disenfranchisement. About six out of 10 are Black, according to state conviction records reviewed by The Marshall Project – Jackson.

An effort to overturn the state’s disenfranchisement law has gone before the U.S. Supreme Court twice, and the case was twice rejected by the majority. In her 2023 dissent, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson rebuked the law’s racist intent, saying it contained “the most toxic of substances” that needed to be removed.

In addition to disenfranchisement, the 1890 delegates crafted legal language around racism and conditions perpetuated by slavery. Poll taxes and literacy tests attacked the lack of wealth and education. Left out of Section 241 were violent crimes — murder, rape and assault — that were often part of white supremacists’ terroristic strategy. 

In an 1896 case, the Mississippi Supreme Court noted the choice of disenfranchising crimes was racist. “Restrained by the federal constitution from discriminating against the negro race, the convention discriminated against its characteristics and the offenses to which its weaker members were prone,” the court wrote. It describes Black people as “patient, docile people,” more inclined to “furtive offenses than to the robust crimes of the whites.”

Yet as 20th-century civil rights laws stripped away most voting restrictions, voter disenfranchisement remained because civil rights have never come easy to Mississippi, voting advocates say.

“There’s never been a time period in Mississippi history where we have done what the federal government has wanted us to do without the federal government having to directly step in and make us do it,” said Hannah Williams, policy and research director of voting rights advocacy group Mississippi Votes. “Even now.”  

“Movements change, but commitments don’t,” said Flonzie Brown Wright, the first Black woman in the state elected to public office in a racially mixed town. “Call it whatever you want to call it,” Brown Wright told The Marshall Project – Jackson. “But the common denominator is: Let’s [not] give these minorities any power.”


Mississippi is one of 13 states that imposes a lifetime voting ban, even after the end of a felony sentence. In most of those states, lifetime disenfranchisement is for violent crimes or government corruption. In Mississippi, a single felony conviction for writing a bad check or shoplifting takes away the right to vote.

Across the nation, courts and state legislatures have restored voting rights for people convicted of felonies. Since 1997, 26 states and the District of Columbia have expanded voting rights for people with felony convictions, according to The Sentencing Project. 

Mississippians last amended Section 241 in 1968 — to add murder and rape to the list of disenfranchising crimes, after burglary was removed in 1950. (See the full list of offenses here: 

Though they once outnumbered White people in the state, Black people have never held a majority of representation in the state’s government. Robert Luckett, a civil rights historian and professor at Jackson State University, said the modern conservatism that rules Mississippi can be traced back to the insidious Mississippi Plan to eliminate Black political power. 

“Conservatives today, especially in the South, didn’t just pop up out of nowhere,” Luckett said. In his view, “they are directly descended from segregationists, from white supremacy.” 

The plan effectively suppressed the Black vote in the 19th and 20th centuries. Luckett and other historians said White political control continues to evolve in the 21st century.

Between 1875 and 1892, the number of Black voters plummeted. Though about 67% had been registered in 1867, fewer than 6% of eligible Black men were registered to vote by 1892, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. 

Starting early in the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of Black Mississippians left the state during the Great Migration caused by economic and social hardships. By 1940, Black people were no longer a majority in the state. And in many rural places, the order established by slavery remained. Black sharecroppers farmed land owned by White people.

Except for a few pockets of Black political power, such as the all-Black town of Mound Bayou in Bolivar County, the Black vote in Mississippi remained largely dormant until the 1960s.

Black people who remained in Mississippi faced much of the same oppression as their ancestors: lynchings, beatings, intimidation and imprisonment.

George W. Lee, a preacher in Belzoni, Mississippi, was murdered for his efforts to register Black voters in 1955. Fannie Lou Hamer, who rose to become a national civil rights champion, sharecropped in rural Ruleville, Mississippi, and had no idea she could vote until she was 44 years old. Hamer was arrested, sexually assaulted and beaten so brutally that it left her with kidney damage and a permanent limp, she testified at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. 

Brown Wright said her father was fired from his job because of her activism. Before her barrier-breaking election in 1968, more than 1,000 civil rights protesters in Jackson were arrested and held in livestock pens in 1965, in one of the largest mass arrests of the Civil Rights Movement.

The passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965 protected the right of Black citizens to vote and outlawed discriminatory barriers like literacy tests. By 1968, 60% of eligible Black residents had registered to vote, and Mississippians elected their first Black state legislator since Reconstruction, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Brown Wright won her race for the elections commission in Canton, despite a rule change that required her to win votes across all parts of Madison County, instead of just the votes from the single district she would represent. 

“It was a clear case of voter suppression,” she said. 

After she took office at age 26, she said the board routinely denied her lists of poll workers who had been community activists and disqualified Black candidates. She sued to overturn the discriminatory actions and won.

White people “never intended for Blacks to supersede or give the perception that we were in the process of gaining some semblance of equality. It was never intended to be,” Brown Wright, now 81, told The Marshall Project – Jackson. 

Carroll Rhodes, a civil rights attorney who has challenged the state on voting rights for more than 40 years, said that following the 1965 Voting Rights Act, local circuit clerks would come up with devious ways to make it difficult for Black people to register and vote. Some examples he listed were splitting majority-Black areas across different districts to dilute Black voting power and requiring voters to re-register multiple times. 

“The only difference is, after Reconstruction, all the way through Jim Crow, it was easy to tell that race was the motivating factor, because they explicitly say it,” Rhodes said. “But the court and the federal government cracked down on those White officials because they were saying they were doing it because of race. So the White official got smart. They no longer say they’re doing it because of race. They come up with other excuses.” 

Mass incarceration as modern voter suppression

At the same time that Mississippi’s civil rights activism gripped the nation, a conservative movement laid the foundation for tough-on-crime rhetoric that eventually took hold among both major political parties and fueled the escalation of arrests and mass incarceration.

The key to the new rhetoric was erasing any mention of race. Instead, disciples of this new movement used crime and welfare as coded language to target Black people, attorney and civil rights scholar Michelle Alexander wrote in “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” 

“Barry Goldwater, in his 1964 presidential campaign, aggressively exploited the [civil rights] riots and fears of black crime, laying the foundation for the ‘get tough on crime’ movement that would emerge years later,” Alexander wrote.

Goldwater’s narrative resonated with White Mississippi voters who rejected Democratic incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights reforms. A majority of Mississippians voted for a Republican presidential candidate — Goldwater — for the first time since Reconstruction.

White Mississippians then continued to vote for Republican presidential candidates in almost every election after 1964, while the state government maintained a status quo of White men, mostly Democrats, who dominated the state legislature and governor’s office. Despite splitting the vote across party lines, the common denominator in White Mississippians’ voting practices was their singular goal of maintaining power. 

After the Voting Rights Act, tough-on-crime rhetoric fueled initiatives like GOP President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs and Democratic President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill that increased mandatory prison sentences. Mississippi now incarcerates more people per capita than any other state. About 60% of all incarcerated people in the state were Black in 2022, according to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, 

Though not all incarcerated people have lost their right to vote, a lack of information about who can and can’t vote makes it difficult for many affected by the legal system to access ballots. 

However, some in Mississippi’s government have tried to change the state’s disenfranchisement laws. 

In 2008, the Mississippi House passed a bill to restore voting rights to the disenfranchised, excluding rape and murder convictions, but the bill died in the state Senate. 

A 2023 lawsuit challenge to felony disenfranchisement was successful when a three-judge U.S. Fifth Circuit Court panel ruled that the lifelong voting ban violated the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause. However, the state appealed to the full appeals court, and the disenfranchisement law remains in place. In its defense, the state said disenfranchisement is not punishment and that the Legislature, not the courts, should decide on any modifications.

In March, the Mississippi House voted across party lines to approve a bill that would restore the right to vote for people convicted of some nonviolent offenses. However, the bill died in the state Senate without a committee hearing.

Rhodes, the civil rights attorney, is co-counsel for the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP in a lawsuit that challenges the state’s congressional redistricting plan, saying it dilutes Black voting power. The case is pending in federal court.

“There will always be a constant struggle. I learned that early on,” Rhodes said. “The forces that want to undo the progress that’s been made will always be there.”

Republish This Story

Copy and Paste the below text.

How Mississippi’s Jim Crow Laws Still Haunt Black Voters Today

By Jackson Advocate News Service
April 14, 2024