Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Disfranchisement Myth: Poor Whites and Suffrage Restriction in Alabama

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

The Disfranchisement Myth: Poor Whites and Suffrage Restriction in Alabama

Article excerpt

The Disfranchisement Myth: Poor Whites and Suffrage Restriction in Alabama. By Glenn Feldman. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004. Pp. xiv, 311. Acknowledgments, introduction, maps, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95.)

"Like those that surrounded the death of Samuel Clemens," writes Glenn Feldman at the beginning of this book, "rumors of plain-white resistance to disfranchisement have been greatly exaggerated" (p. 1). So goes the premise of this book: scholars from V. O. Key and C. Vann Woodward to J. Morgan Kousser, Samuel L. Webb, and Michael Perman, Feldman contends, have portrayed "the plain [white] folk" of the South as victims of disfranchisement who nobly opposed suffrage restriction when, in fact, they actually helped make it happen. If true, Feldman's claim is rife with irony, since poor whites in Alabama (and other southern states) often found themselves deprived of the right to vote along with their African-American neighbors as a consequence of the wave of disfranchisement laws that swept across the South during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

As the book's subtitle indicates, Feldman uses Alabama as a case study for his thesis. He believes that the state known as the "Heart of Dixie" makes a particularly good choice since Alabama, he suggests, was the only state where disfranchisement was accomplished by popular vote. Alabama's disfranchisement measures were part of the otherwise still-intact state constitution of 1901; the state's electorate voted first to call for the convention that wrote the constitution and then again to ratify that constitution. But Feldman seems to neglect the Texas electorate's ratification of a poll tax amendment to the state constitution in 1902. The crux of Feldman's argument is that, in addition to receiving overwhelming support in Alabama's Black Belt-support which was highly suspect since the voting figures indicate that African Americans voted to disfranchise themselves-disfranchisement also received majority support in about half of the white counties that had supported the People's or Populist party in 1892 or 1894. In sum, Feldman argues, "[M]any plain whites in Alabama voted for disfranchisement . . . and, in doing so, did little to help their own political and economic prospects" (p. 133).

This assertion leads to a larger point, which the author makes abundantly clear in the conclusion: in 1901, many of Alabama's plain white voters succumbed to the passionate politics of race and Reconstruction by supporting disfranchisement against their own social, economic, and political interests. …

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