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Did Poor Whites Vote for the Racist Jim Crow Laws of the South?

by John Spritzler

September 18, 2012


Hollywood films and t.v. shows and widely read books such as To Kill a Mockingbird have constructed a very misleading understanding of the origin and role of the notoriously racist Jim Crow laws in the American South*, which enforced racial separation in public places and were on the books from 1876 to 1965. These sources mislead people into believing that the Jim Crow laws reflected what the poor whites wanted because they were so racist. Thus, in To Kill a Mockingbird it is a poor "white trash" character, Bob Ewell, who tries to kill the children of Atticus, the heroic anti-racist lawyer. In this view of the South, the only opposition to the Jim Crow laws among whites was from relatively few well-educated white professionals, like Atticus.


The Origin of the Jim Crow Laws

The Jim Crow laws were legislated in the South starting in 1876 when the federal government ended it's post-Civil War Reconstruction policy of using military force to protect the civil rights of the newly freed slaves. In the 1870s the Democratic Party, representing the former slave owners, formed paramilitary groups and resorted to extreme violence to intimidate opponents and win elections to state offices in the South. In 1877 the Democratic politicians controlling the federal government withdrew all of the remaining federal troops from the South, in order to establish an alliance with the racist Democratic Southern state governments to win the presidential election.

During the 1870s the Southern state governments legislated very restrictive electoral rules that resulted in excluding most blacks and sharply decreasing the number of poor whites that could vote. Tens of thousands of poor whites were denied access to a ballot by a combination of poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, and residencyand record-keeping requirements. The legislatures that enacted the Jim Crow laws were composed of politicians who were backed by the wealthiest layer of society--the former slaveowners--and whose victory at the polls required the disfranchisement of not only blacks but of poor whites as well. With one exception discussed below, poor Southern whites never voted for the Jim Crow laws in a referendum. Only politicians, who were afraid of letting poor whites vote, voted to enact these racist laws.

The one time that poor Southern whites, and not just politicians in a legislature, voted for Jim Crow was when they voted in the referendum to ratify the new Alabama State Constitution that was approved at a Constitutional Convention in 1901, and which dinfranchised blacks. The wealthy whites who ran the convention told poor whites ahead of the referendum that only if they voted for the new constitution would they, themselves, be protected from disfranchisement: a "Great Lie" in the words of Glenn Feldman, whose monograph [1] on this part of history gives a detailed account of what happened. As Feldman also recounts, poor whites were largely disfranchised after being fooled by the Big Lie anyway.

By threatening poor whites in Alabama with loss of the vote and economic ruin if they didn't vote as they were told, the wealthy whites got what they wanted. To conclude from this that racism originates from poor whites is absurd. Poor whites believed the "Great Lie," which shows they were naive. They probably also believed all sorts of racist lies about blacks, which shows they were influenced by lies. But being influenced by lies is one thing. Creating the lies, and creating the conditions that give credence to the lies, and threatening people by means of these lies to maintain one's wealth and privileged status in society is something else altogether: it is the source of racism.

Poor whites back then were in some ways like the voters of Massachusetts who voted against single payer universal health care in 2000 but overwhelmingly for it in 2010. In the earlier election the ballot question was a binding one. That's why the Big Money opposition to single payer health care dominated the t.v. airwaves with expensive adds that featured doctors and nurses (or actors portraying them), with stethescopes around their neck, speaking directly into the camera and warning (threatening, actually) that if the ballot question passed it would economically destroy the health care system and people would lose whatever health care they presently had. In the subsequent election the question was non-binding and the wealthy opposition pretty much ignored it. This time people voted overwhelmingly for single payer health care. This shows that people can be frightened by powerful forces into voting the opposite way they would otherwise have voted. To conclude from the first election defeat of single payer health care that the reason Massachusetts didn't adopt it in 2000 was because the voters didn't want it would be absurd. It was because Big Money didn't want it, and Big Money cowed the voters into going along. This is how racism works too.


During the Civil War Poor Whites Fought the Slave Owners in Alliance with the Slaves

On March 8, 1864 Captain A.F. Ramsey of the Confederacy's 3rd Mississippi Regiment wrote to Major J.C. Denis, the regional provost marshal about an attack on a Confederate installation in New Augusta, Mississippi. Of the attackers, Ramsey wrote, "They stated they were in regular communication with the Yankees, were fighting for the Union, and would have peace or hell by August. They told the negros they were free."

The attackers were natives of Mississippi, not Yankees. They were whites--the sort of whites that were called "poor white trash" by the "better" folk of the Confederacy. They came from Jones County and nearby counties of rural Mississippi, where they were small "yeoman" farmers who owned no slaves and were proud of that fact. They farmed small plots of land, and as fugitives who had been conscripted into and then deserted from the Confederate Army, they hid in the swamps around their farms.

Sally Jenkins, a journalist, and John Stauffer, chair and professor of the History of American Civilization at Harvard University wrote a book about these anti-Confederacy whites of Mississippi. Their book is titled "The State of Jones" because Jones County, Mississippi, virtually seceded from the Confederacy during the Civil War. This book tells about an important aspect of race relations in American history that is unknown by most Americans. This section is based on their book.

In their attack on the Confederate installation, these "poor white trash" "surrounded the home in which the local conscription officer, Captain John J. Bradford, of the 3rd Mississippi Regiment, was staying. In broad daylight they called him outside and took a vote on whether to hang him. He was 'pardoned' after he promised to quit the conscription service and swore never again to enter the county or to in any way aid in attacks against them. They took three more prisoners at gunpoint, liberated the local slaves, and seized a dozen horses, government stores, ammunition, and cooking utensils. They issued provisions to destitute families in the neighborhood."

Confederate Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk wrote to President Jefferson Davis that the Jones Countians were "in open rebellion, defiant at the outset, proclaiming themselves 'Southern Yankees,' and resolved to resist by force of arms all efforts to capture them." Polk "ordered elements from two of the most battle-hardened regiments in the whole of the Confederacy army, the 'Bloody' 6th Mississippi and the intensely loyal 20th Mississippi, to conduct an expansive sweep of the lower Mississippi, combing the several counties between the Pearl and Tombigbee rivers for deserters." They arrested about 500 men in seven counties.

Here's one way the yeoman farmer "guerillas," led by Newton Knight, fought back against Polk's "rebel" troops:

"Another better-laid trap succeeded. Some of the area farmwives invited the troopers to a dance party at Levi Valentine's. The cavalrymen arrived to find a Negro fiddler sawing on his instrument and friendly local girls eager to waltz. But as they cavorted, the Jones County men crept up on the guards for an ambush. As the cavalrymen realized the trap, chaos erupted. The women fled out the back door, while the rebels bolted toward the front porch, where Newton's men met them with a brace of gunfire. Two cavalrymen and one guerrilla were killed in the exchange."

At this time slaves who were able to do so left the plantations and headed for Union positions. By the end of 1863 about 50,000 former slaves were serving in the Union Army. One slave woman named Rachel, who was owned by relatives of Newton Knight, remained with her owner.

"Newton's most reliable ally and source of sustenance was Rachel...The young woman knew both the ways of the swamp and the kitchens of Confederates. Rachel ferried food, clothing and information to Newton. She regularly crossed the boundaries between Confederate households, the slave cabins, and the hidden civilization in the swamp, carrying news to Newton and keeping him apprised of rebel movements...For the rest of the war, Rachel would operate as Newton's 'intelligence,' ...she became Newton's spy, his eyes and ears."

During the fighting, Newton was unable to stay with his wife and family on their farm, and he and Rachel became, in effect, a married couple who later raised children and had grandchildren together.

General Polk's determined effort to capture Newton's men failed. "All the Confederate cavalry, artillery, and crack infantry regiments had done was give him temporary pause. Nor had they solved the larger problem of desertion in the ranks: only 20 percent of the five thousand active deserters in Mississippi had been caught and returned to duty."

Non-slave-owning "poor white trash" deserted from the Confederate army in large numbers for four main reasons. They hated being treated like dirt by the slave-owning officers. They hated the Confederate government for allowing men who owned twenty or more slaves to remain at home with their families while poorer men were conscripted. They hated the Confederate government for sending agents to attack their wives--robbing them of food and the means to keep themselves and their children alive while their husbands were away. And they were unwilling to risk their lives to defend the institution of slavery. In fact, they believed in equality of all human beings. Newton Knight and his followers were Baptists who "practiced foot washing, lay preaching, and egalitarian worship in unadorned buildings. The central tenet of their faith was that all humans were equal in God's eyes and infused with God's spirit. 'God is no respecter of persons' was one of their favorite passages from the Bible. Another was: 'Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.'"

The "poor white trash" of Mississippi formed an alliance with the slaves against the Confederate slave-owning elite. As Jenkins and Stauffer write: "Also, every day more blacks liberated from plantations came into the swamps to join the struggle."

The poor whites of Mississippi who fought the Confederacy alongside slaves did so because of working class values that they shared with slaves. The fact that poor whites may have believed some racist lies about blacks that constituted the dominant ideas of the day is not nearly as important or significant as the fact that their working class values led them to ally with slaves to fight the racist ruling class. Racism came from the upper class, and anti-racism came from the working class--black and white--in Mississippi during the Civil War.


Poor Whites Joined Poor Blacks to Fight Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan in the 1930s

In the 1930s throughout the South, black and white tenant farmers united in the Southern Tenant Farmers Union against the large landowners and the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws, and waged successful strikes for better conditions. At one can read this account:

By 1936, the union had spread to Texas, Missouri, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Missouri, and at its height in 1938, claimed over 30,000 members in over 300 separate locals. The newspaper, the Sharecroppers’ Voice, described the struggle of the Union and the workers they represented. Throughout its history, the STFU was remarkable among tenant farmers and sharecroppers’ unions in the South for its commitment in theory and in practice to building what was rare for the time and region, a racially integrated union.

The STFU faced enormous legal and extralegal violence and repression precisely because of its interracial nature and its attack on the longstanding exploitative agricultural system of the South. Union members and organizers were often harassed by planters who invaded union meetings. They also faced local police who arrested them on various charges or from terror groups who assaulted them and repeatedly threatened lynching and other forms of violence.

For much greater detail about the STFU, its inter-racial character, its fight against the Ku Klux Klan and the Jim Crow laws that made even their integrated meetings of the union illegal, read Mean Things Happening in this Land: The Life and Times of H.L. Mitchell, Co-Founder of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union by H. L. Mitchell.


Racism and Class

Enslaving black people and spreading the racist lie that blacks were inferior in order to legitimize their enslavement--these were things that the upper class of slave owners did. These were things that only people with the real power in society were able to do. Working class whites along with blacks have been forced to live their lives in a world dominated by the rich ruling class that uses its power to enforce racist practices, from the slavery of the past to the Jim Crow laws that followed it to the current disproportional imprisonment of blacks resulting from a "war on drugs" carried out by a ruling class that uses drugs to control poor people at home and abroad.

The fact that working class whites to varying degrees are influenced by the racist ideas they are subjected to, and that they draw some racist conclusions from seeing the results of racist practices (such as concluding from the disproportionate number of blacks in prison that black people are innately criminal) is neither deniable nor particularly surprising. The only significance of this fact is that it shows that a powerful ruling class can succeed to some extent in promoting racist lies and shaping society in ways that make them more credible. It does not at all indicate that racism stems from working class whites, only that it has some effect on them.

The far more interesting question is why, despite the enormous and often violent efforts of the ruling class to instill racist ideas in working class whites, despite using racial segregation to prevent mutual trust and understanding from ever developing between workers of different races, despite all of these efforts by the ruling elite to pit blacks and whites against each other, there has nonetheless emerged any solidarity at all between black and white working class people, against slave owners, against the large landowners that tenant farmers worked for, and against the Big Money class that workers confront today.

The only way to answer THIS question is by seeing that ordinary working class people share a working class culture that says they should all help each other as equals, no matter what their race.** This culture may be attacked and forced to retreat and put on the defensive, it may be cowed into submission to the opposite culture of the ruling elite, but it exists. It is the only explanation for the racial solidarity that rises up throughout history time after time. It is this culture that, when nurtured and organized and championed, will defeat the ruling elite. A revolutionary movement to make a more equal and democratic society will be based on this culture, and draw its strength from working people of all races.

If we let the Hollywood and t.v. and widely-read books persuade us that racism comes from below and anti-racism comes from the top of society, then we will never understand how to build a mass movement that can win a better world. That is precisely why these misleading sources of knowledge about our past--indeed about ourselves--are promoted by the ruling class.


1. Glenn Feldman, The Disfranchisement Myth: Poor Whites and Suffrage Restriction in Alabama, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004

* Racial segregation laws also existed in the North, even earlier (not counting slavery itself) than in the South.

** A striking example of how this working class culture of solidarity regardless of race exists even in white workers who have been greatly influenced by the racist ideas and practices of their time, is this account by Hillel Levine and Lawrence Harmon from their book, The Death of An American Jewish Community, about Boston in the 1960s.

"One high school student who worked the swing shift in a South Boston [an all white neighborhood at the time] sportswear factory in 1967 recalled...: After a black worker's paycheck failed to arrive on payday due to an administrative snafu, the same white workers who had resisted an integrated work force called an immediate work stoppage. A burly cloth cutter known for his open contempt for blacks laid down the law to management in blunt language: "Nobody returns to the shop floor until the nigger gets his fuckin' paycheck."

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