Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Mississippi Choctaws and Racial Politics

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Mississippi Choctaws and Racial Politics

Article excerpt

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In December 1912, Mississippi representative Pat Harrison stood before Congress and delivered an impassioned speech on behalf of the Choctaw Indians living in his district along the Gulf Coast. In a heavily edited version of the past, Harrison announced, "Mr. Chairman, the Choctaw Indians always stood with the white men of the South," and called on Congress to support legislation allowing Mississippi Choctaws access to the resources of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. (1) Descendants of those who had remained in Mississippi when the Choctaw Nation ceded its territory there and moved to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in the 1830s, Mississippi's Choctaws had withdrawn into isolated, poverty-stricken ethnic enclaves where virtually all subsisted as sharecroppers and low-paid day laborers. While the Choctaws were not officially classified under the segregation statutes as "colored," they nonetheless suffered routine racial segregation and discrimination. They had no access to "white" schools and facilities, and state poll taxes and literacy requirements disenfranchised them. Yet Harrison and the Mississippi congressional delegation, all ardent supporters of segregation, were seeking redress for the injustice the Indians had suffered in the removal era and more recently when the United States had closed the roll of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, excluding most Mississippi Choctaws from the benefits of Choctaw Nation citizenship. This support of the Choctaws was an interesting twist in the state's racial politics.

The Mississippi congressional delegation's efforts reflected a change in the relationship between Choctaws and the state's politicians. The early-nineteenth-century politicians had answered the Indians' cries for justice by hounding them out of the state. The willingness of Mississippi's civic leaders to carry the Choctaw banner in the early twentieth century raises significant questions. Why did these men advocate for the Choctaws, who, disenfranchised and impoverished, could neither vote nor contribute to their campaign chests? Why were men passionately committed to white supremacy interested in a non-white minority? What does this crusade on behalf of the Mississippi Choctaws reveal about racial attitudes in the biracial South and the place of Indians in this system? The answers to these questions are complex, but the Choctaws' symbolic value for Mississippi politicians certainly had risen slowly over the eighty-two years since removal. The campaign to win government services for them reflected these developments.

The legislators argued that the United States, not Mississippi, had an obligation to help the Choctaws, because their troubles stemmed from the failure of the federal government to honor the commitments it made in Article 14 of the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, the removal treaty negotiated in 1830 between the Choctaw Nation and the United States. Article 14 had promised all Choctaws who wanted to stay in Mississippi and become citizens of the state (and subject to its repressive racial laws) could do so if they registered appropriately with William Ward, the government representative who would issue them an allotment of land. Ward was an inept drunkard, however, and he refused to enroll the majority of qualified Indians. Some who received allotments lost their land when Mississippi citizens threatened them with arrest, whipped them, and drove them out of their homes, claiming that they had bought them at auction. In calling for redress, however, Mississippi politicians recalled the conduct of the federal government and conveniently forgot how Mississippi settlers had behaved.

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Throughout the 1840s the remaining Choctaws in Mississippi had repeatedly petitioned the federal government to keep the promises of Article 14, but by the end of the decade it was clear that they would not prevail. They then withdrew into their own communities, mostly on public land in east-central Mississippi and along the Gulf Coast, where they lived at the subsistence level. …

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