Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908

Article excerpt

Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908. By Michael Perman. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Pp. xiii, 397. Acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, maps, conclusion, notes, bibliography, index. $49.95, cloth; $24.95, paper.)

Beginning with Tennessee and Arkansas in 1889, southern states considered and then implemented constitutional measures to disfranchise their African-American citizens. These actions reflected a shift in strategy by white Democrats, who prior to this time had been satisfied to control black voters through the use of extra-legal measures (fraud, intimidation, and violence) and statutes. Questions about the causes of disfranchisement have concerned prominent historians from William A. Dunning, who considered the matter in a 1902 article in Atlantic Monthly entitled the "Undoing of Reconstruction," to more recent authors such as V. 0. Key, Jr., C. Vann Woodward, and J. Morgan Kousser. Still, little consensus exists as to what forces were behind the movement or even its precise purpose. Struggle for Mastery returns to these questions. Michael Perman correctly points out that many of the existing generalizations have been speculative, resting on limited investigation of the evidence. He believes other interpretations have failed to grasp the complexity of the picture. Having made an impressive foray into government documents, newspapers, manuscripts, and the large number of state studies (John Graves's important work on Arkansas is used), Perman offers his own answers to the questions that have concerned scholars.

Perman, well-respected for his previous works on Reconstruction politics, sees disfranchisement as representative of a distinctive era in the political history of the South. He recognizes that efforts at disfranchising blacks represented part of a continuous effort by southern whites to secure racial domination and did not reflect a new pattern of racism. Nonetheless, he sees the shift of efforts from control of the black vote to its elimination as a decisive moment in the South's history because it established political patterns that lasted into the middle of the twentieth century. The primary focus of the study is explaining why this shift took place when it did. Perman avoids broader cultural explanations and seeks answers in traditional political questions: Who did what to whom, how, and why?

Perman's observations on who was behind the disfranchising efforts and the identity of their intended victims challenge some long-held views. He agrees with V. 0. Key's observations in his Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949) that disfranchisement was carried out by the Democratic leaders of southern states to eliminate black voting. He sees it as a virtual coup d'etat with which neither the electorate at large nor the majority of Democrats were involved. To be satisfied with the observation that disfranchisement was the work of party leaders, however, is to assume a homogeneity in that party Perman does not believe existed. He concludes that the forces and purposes behind disfranchisement varied state to state. …

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