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Reconstruction Period Research Forum

Book Review: The Disfranchisement Myth

H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-South@h-net.msu.edu (October, 2005)

Glenn Feldman. _The Disfranchisement Myth: Poor Whites and Suffrage
Restriction in Alabama_. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. xiii
+ 171 pp. Maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95 (cloth),
ISBN 0-8203-2615-1.

Reviewed for H-South by Gail S. Murray, Department of History, Rhodes
College.

Race Trumps Class in New South Alabama

In this narrowly focused, deeply researched book, Glenn Feldman seeks to
forever banish one oft-repeated mantra of New South political history:
populist hill-country whites joined with African Americans to oppose
disfranchisement during the height of Jim Crow. This assumption is a
myth, he argues, because poor whites were just as ready to curtail black
voting as any Deep South planter. When Alabamians adopted a new
Constitution in 1901, most poor whites approved self-destructive
suffrage limitations in order to ensure the exclusion of African
Americans from the polls. Feldman deconstructs the machinations of
Alabama politicians who engineered the call for a Constitutional
Convention in 1900, oversaw the writing of the new document, and guided
its adoption. In this short book, Feldman provides what will surely
become the definitive study of Alabama politics between 1898 and 1902.
Scholars in other southern states will need to explore their own
states'voting patterns on disfranchisement legislation more closely to
see if the Feldman thesis holds in their locale as well. Surely all who
teach the New South will reexamine their understanding of the political
role played by poor whites.

The strengths of this book are many: exhaustive archival research into
political lives; precise reconstruction of political decision-making
based on Convention records; extensive use of contemporary editorials; a
comprehensive bibliography; clear and often lyrical prose; and a more
careful construction of the argument than this review can convey. What
will bring this reviewer back to the book again and again are the
chilling quotations--mostly from newspapers of the day--of white
spokesmen about African-American citizens. Should you ever underestimate
the vitriolic language in play at the turn of the century, just examine
some of Feldman's examples from poor white, hill-country newspapers. For
example, from the _Marshall Banner_, "'All coons look alike' to us, and
have the same smell whether his name be Booker Washington [or not]
...[He] is still a negro and should understand that he must remain in
the proper place" (p. 87). In a long diatribe, the _Clanton Banner_
wrote, "Remove the negro into the humiliated station of life that nature
intended for him" (p. 57). Feldman finds "the plain folk" consistently
embracing such racist assumptions.

_The Disfranchisement Myth_ begins with Feldman defining the title term,
which he coined to describe the assumption "that common whites opposed
suffrage restriction" for African Americans because they knew their own
citizenship rights were equally vulnerable (p. 1). He explains how a
superficial examination of voting returns coupled with a sympathy for
the independent white farmer led such preeminent scholars as C. Vann
Woodward, J. Morgan Kousser, and Michael Perman to assume that votes
against black disfranchisement represented a fusion of African-American
and poor white voters even after the demise of Populism.[1] As the
reader begins this introduction, however, she has the sense of being
dropped into an ongoing professional conversation about the role of poor
whites in Progressive-era Alabama. The author spends no time developing
a national (or southern) historical context nor reviews the history of
poor white and African-American collaboration during the Populist era.
Neither does he define basic terms such as "poor white" or "wiregrass."
This is a work for specialists in Alabama history and Feldman goes right
to task, illustrating three reasons that the "disfranchisement myth" has
endured and calling for a reexamination of this myth.

The first chapter begins with a thoughtful description of scientific
racism and southern whites' preoccupation with black political power
under Reconstruction. These ideologies brought Alabama whites together,
even when planter interests and yeoman interests might otherwise
diverge. Rather than painting poor whites as "blameless victims of
draconian patrician machinations," (p. 23) Feldman positions poor whites
as willingly sacrificing some political power in order to guarantee
white privilege. Even avid white populists "were white men first"
(p.24). Feldman uses the Alabama Senatorial race of 1900 as a prelude to
the kind of racist rhetoric that would dominate the constitutional
convention debates soon to follow. Incumbent John Tyler Morgan defeated
former governor Joseph F. Johnston by trumpeting white supremacy and
making race the primary issue in a campaign between two very similar
candidates. Feldman finds that Morgan was able to effectively dismember
what had been the populist coalition by hammering on black inferiority.

In the second chapter, the author analyzes the politics behind calling a
constitutional convention as opposed to continuing to disfranchise
African Americans by force or through state law alone. He argues that
proponents built on the racial rhetoric of the 1900 Senate campaign to
emphasize the need for whites to establish their hegemony concretely.
Two tropes continually reappeared in speeches, editorials, and planning
meetings: the horrors of Radical Republican Reconstruction and the
intellectual superiority of whites. He uses the minutes of the
Democratic State Convention to produce a detailed discussion of the
political maneuvering within the Democratic leadership to secure the
call for a convention. His close examination of newspapers in the
predominantly white, non-planter counties reveals deep racist attitudes,
whereas planter-dominated areas voiced paternalistic platitudes.
Opposition to calling a convention came mainly from those who either
found it unnecessary, as the black vote was well controlled already, or
who feared that a new Constitution might also deprive them of voting
rights. Pro-constitution advocates countered with assurances that the
great sacrifices of poor whites in the Great War would never be
forgotten. Enough voters believed this "pledge" that the call for a
convention passed by a 24,800 state-wide vote margin.

The Convention itself produced a document that would take effect in two
stages, a temporary plan from 1901-1903 whereby voting was restricted
"by literacy and property tests ... [and] a poll tax" only (p. 90). The
permanent Constitution would take effect in 1903 with "five
disfranchising mechanisms with no corresponding loopholes for poor
whites.... All five could be equally applicable to blacks and poor
whites" (pp. 90-91). Thus the new Constitution embedded class privilege
as it excluded African-American and poor white voters.

A separate chapter covers the ratification process itself. Ratification
arguments also took two trajectories: blatant arguments about the
inferiority of African Americans (p. 1) and the frightening specter of
Radical Reconstruction rule (p. 2). Either way, ratification supporters
heralded white supremacy and the necessity that whiteness trump class
interest. Feldman reconstructs voting county by county to illustrate how
little of the anti-Constitution vote was actually composed of poor
whites. Instead, opposition came from some black voters and some white
planter paternalists who saw no need for further restraints of the
franchise. White males, regardless of class, were equally susceptible to
racist arguments and to the hollow promise that no whites would lose
their vote. According to Feldman, most poor white voters bought these
arguments and "privileged Democracy had its way" (p. 125). An appendix
contains detailed tables of voting for both calling the convention and
ratification.

Did poor whites, in fact, lose their political voice under the new
voting requirements? In 1903, the statewide total of registered white
voters fell by 41,329 men despite a growing Alabama population. Some
"reform" Democrats and poor whites who had opposed the new Constitution
rallied to urge the party to adopt a (white) primary, hoping to give
non-elites a voice. This final gesture cemented black disfranchisement,
as both political parties became "lily-white," but did nothing to
empower the poor farmer.

When Feldman writes in his conclusion that "t is not a pretty sight
to see plain people unwittingly work harm to their future prospects
because of a shortsighted indulgence of emotion and, in fact, of
prejudice," the reader suspects that the author is also addressing
contemporary political behavior (p. 167). The willingness of
working-class voters to vote against their own economic interests in
order to voice support for perceived moral values rings true in the last
presidential election. People do not "make political decisions based on
rational estimations of their political interests" (p. 167). Indeed!

Having convinced the reader, I hope, that this is in fact a very
important book, this reviewer must also lodge two caveats. As carefully,
forcefully, and articulate as Feldman's argument is, it is just one
argument about a very specific political event in only one state. It
would have made a superb journal article and as such, secured a larger
audience than it will probably find as a hardback monograph. An article
could be assigned to classes with ease--and with much profit, not only
for its content, but also as an example of research skill and excellent
prose writing. Why is it that scholars feel compelled to include every
possible piece of evidence in order to stretch an argument into a slim
book? Are tenure and promotion guidelines driving decisions about how to
publish our work? One result of the decision to present this research as
a monograph is that the thesis is repeated and repeated in every
chapter. It is fine micro-history, but may not get the wide reading
audience it deserves.

A second quibble is that the best of the new political history views
political choices through the lens of not only race and class, but also
of gender. This reader found but one paragraph that dealt with the use
of racial rhetoric in the woman suffrage debate. The book pays no
attention to the cooperation, even the lead, of women in promoting white
superiority and in segregating people of color to the fringes of proper
society. Since the author cites both Jane Dailey's and Glenda Gilmore's
works in his one paragraph, he surely understands how much of the power
of white cultural formation must be attributed to women and women's
organizations.[2]

Notes

[1]. C. Vann Woodward, _Origins of the New South, 1877-1913_ (reprint:
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971) and _The Strange
Career of Jim Crow_, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974);
Morgan J. Kousser, _The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage
Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910_
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974); Michael Perman, _Struggle for
Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908_ (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

[2]. Jane Dailey, _Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in
Post-Emancipation Virginia_ (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Press, 2000); Glenda E. Gilmore, _Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the
Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920_(Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

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18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
Copyright © 2002-2008 by AfriGeneas. All rights reserved.
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