Legislating Racism: The Billion Dollar Congress and the Birth of Jim Crow

By McKinney, Gordon B. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Legislating Racism: The Billion Dollar Congress and the Birth of Jim Crow


McKinney, Gordon B., South Carolina Historical Magazine


Legislating Racism: The Billion Dollar Congress and the Birth of Jim Crow. By Thomas Adams Upchurch. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004. Pp. xiv, 302; $40, cloth.)

Professor Thomas Adams Upchurch has written a useful study of some of the major issues discussed by the Fifty-first Congress (1889-1891). This volume will be used by scholars to supplement Daniel W. Crofts's 1968 Yale University dissertation, "The Blair Bill and the Elections Bill: The Congressional Aftermath of Reconstruction." While Crofts emphasizes the Blair Education bill, Upchurch focuses his attention on the Lodge Elections bill, often referred to as the "Force Bill." The result is that Upchurch adds some valuable new detail to our understanding of the congressional debates of this Congress and provides a helpful discussion of southern reaction to this attempt to revisit Reconstruction.

Upchurch sets the scene very effectively. He describes the determination of the Republicans in 1888 to take advantage of their control of both the presidency and the Congress for the first time since 1874. Their announced plan to seek protection for black voters in the South immediately polarized the Congress before it even met. seeking to direct the discussion of the southern race problem into more congenial channels-and split the Republicans-Matthew Butler, Democratic senator from South Carolina, introduced a bill to transport blacks back to Africa. Upchurch's description of this episode and the discussion it provoked outside of Congress is new and provides important information that is missing from other accounts.

Upchurch then describes two political initiatives that were directly affected by the coming debate on the elections bill. The first was Henry Blair's education bill. The New Hampshire senator's proposal to provide federal aid to end illiteracy had been approved in the Senate since 1884, but kept off the House floor by the northern Democratic House leadership. Blair assumed that since the Republicans now controlled the House, his bill would easily pass. Instead, the poisoned atmosphere created by the elections bill led to the breakup of the bipartisan coalition that supported the legislation and to its defeat.

The other development was much more significant for the future of the country. Southern Democrats hoped to circumvent potential federal interference by state action. Legislators in Mississippi took the lead. They called a state constitutional convention to amend the voter-registration laws to eliminate the impact of black voters. Taking signals from the congressional Republican leadership, the convention imposed educational requirementsbased on the Massachusetts constitution-to eliminate black voters. Within two decades, other southern states had also repressed the black vote and imposed broad Jim Crow legal, social, and economic systems on African Americans.

Upchurch spends approximately half of the volume discussing the fate of the elections bill in the Fifty-first Congress. …

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