Federal court says Mississippi's Jim Crow-era voting law is 'steeped in racism' — but they can still use it
Judge with Gavel (Shutterstock)

According to the Mississippi Free Press, the traditionally right-wing U.S. Appeals Court for the Fifth Circuit has upheld an 1890 voting law in Mississippi that was explicitly designed to make it easy to strip Black people of their voting rights for life — even as the court admitted that was the original purpose of the law.

"The court’s conservative majority admitted that the Jim Crow law was 'steeped in racism,' but said the State had made enough changes in the 132 years since to override its white supremacist taint," reported Ashton Pittman. "A 2018 analysis found that the law still disproportionately disenfranchises Black Mississippians compared to white residents."

"The 1890 provision at issue is Section 241 of the Mississippi Constitution, which originally permanently disenfranchised people who committed the following crimes: bribery, burglary, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement and bigamy," noted the report.

These are all crimes that were disproportionately, or in some cases almost exclusively, used to prosecute Black people, many of whom hadn't actually done anything wrong.

"In their effort to only include crimes they believed Black people were most likely to commit, the white-supremacist drafters of the 1890 Constitution did not originally include murder and rape as disenfranchising crimes," the report noted.

As the report noted, the Mississippi legislature adopted race neutral language in the law — something that, contrary to popular belief, a lot of Jim Crow laws of the era did — but the drafters of the law made clear in speeches what the law was for. Mississippi Speaker of the House James Vardaman said: “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter … Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the n–ger from politics. Not the ‘ignorant and vicious’, as some of the apologists would have you believe, but the n–ger.”

The Fifth Circuit argued that since the list of crimes was later updated, with burglary being taken out and murder and rape being added, there was no longer a racial intent in the list of crimes, and therefore it was now allowed — even though the state still firmly had a segregationist code at the time that list was amended.

"In a dissent, Judge James E. Graves Jr. cited Vardaman’s admission about the purpose of the 1890 convention, noting that the so-called 'Great White Chief' said the goal was to legislate 'against the racial peculiarities of the Negro' and that 'when that device fails, we will resort to something else,'" said the report. "Graves, who is Black and a native of Clinton, Miss., joined the 5th Circuit after former President Barack Obama appointed him in 2011."

You can read more here.