Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908
Ferrell, Henry C., Jr., South Carolina Historical Magazine
Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908. By Michael Perman. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 397; $49.95, cloth; $24.95, paper.)
In Struggle for Mastery, Michael Perman, Research Professor in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago, offers a new historical synthesis of disfranchisement that swept through southern precincts between 1888 and 1908. He labels this electoral reform as "quite possibly one of the most dramatic and decisive episodes in American history" (p. 1). His work, posed in a winning writing style, also marks the first study that considers each southern state and its processes that led to disfranchisement.
Although southern Democrats had gone along with the new electoral system established during Reconstruction, they did not accept its legality, and Perman sees Democratic leaders as itching to restore the electoral structure in effect at the end of the Civil War. Their first response produced violence and fraud. Manipulation through states' statues came next. Then, disfranchisement-voter elimination-rose to the forefront.
Perman sets aside the earlier commentary by V. O. Key, Jr. and C. Vann Woodward. The former defined the event as a "Bourbon [conservative] coup d'etat" whose strength centered in white elites in the black belts outside the cities. The latter saw the movement as a regional battle between white men in the hill country and those in the black belts. African Americans served only as a handy scapegoat. Perman observes that both neglected to base their observations upon detailed historical records. A third historian, Morgan Kouser, Perman believes, performed adequate research. Kouser, however, affirmed that the forces for change gathered among the class conscious elites in the black belts who cared neither for blacks nor lower class whites.
Perman steps beyond these and similar commentators by asking new questions. His emphasis upon the type of disfranchisement-statutory and constitutional-that broke the earlier manipulative techniques places process as a key to understanding the slow growing crusade. Disfranchisers differed from state to state, he contends. For example, outside reformers and reform insurgents had their role to play. Questions about the reformers' true intentions, whether to eliminate only blacks or blacks and whites, Perman admits "are difficult to answer" (p 6).
Beginning in 1889, the Tennessee legislature adopted a poll tax and new registration in 1890 that removed blacks and mowed "down thousands of white voters all over the state" (p. 59). Perman cites the intention to reduce the growing, threatening black Republican vote in west Tennessee as the origins of the movement and suggests the leadership was surprised by its effect upon white voters. Arkansas followed for similar reasons by removing the black voter through the poll tax. Constitutional amendments began to offset the earlier statutory tools used to limit the electorate. In Mississippi approval of a call for a constitutional convention and its results that would reduce universal suffrage marked a "watershed in the history of southern suffrage and race relations" (p. 70). This was not the first southern state convention since Reconstruction, but it was the first to use constitutional means, including an understanding clause, in what proved to be complicated and diffuse suffrage constraints for the 1892 election.
South Carolina experienced "its greatest political turbulence since Reconstruction" (p. 91). The electorate accepted a call for a constitutional convention from dominant farmers, led by Benjamin Tillman, rather than conservative Democratic landowners. …