The Mississippi Plan of 1875 was developed as part of the white insurgency during the Reconstruction Era in the Southern United States. It was devised by the Democratic Party in that state to overthrow the Republican Party in Mississippi by means of organized threats of violence and suppression or purchase of the black vote. Democrats wanted to regain political control of the legislature and governor's office. Their success led to similar plans being adopted by white Democrats in South Carolina and other majority-black states.
To end election violence and formalize the exclusion of freedmen from politics, the Democrat-dominated state legislature passed a new constitution in 1890, which effectively disenfranchised and disarmed most blacks by erecting barriers to voter registration and firearms ownership. Disenfranchisement was enforced through terrorist violence and fraud and eventually, most black people stopped trying to register or vote. They did not regain the power to vote until the late 1960s after federal legislation was passed to prevent voter suppression.
During Reconstruction, former slaves were granted citizenship and the vote by the 14th and 15th Amendments. The consequences of this were far-reaching and almost immediate, as freedmen eagerly registered and flooded the polls. Of the 100 delegates to the constitutional convention that drafted the Reconstruction document, only 16 were black.
In Mississippi's 1874 election, the Republican Party carried a 30,000 majority in what had been a Democratic Party stronghold when only whites voted. Republicans took the governor's office and some legislative seats, but blacks never held a majority of seats in any of the state legislatures, although that was their proportion of the population. Freedmen and other blacks (some free blacks had migrated from the North), were elected to many local offices and 10 of 36 seats in the state legislature. (They comprised a large majority of the population and voted for white Republicans as well as blacks.)
In 1874 whites in the city of Vicksburg were determined to suppress black voting in that year's election. White armed patrols prevented blacks from voting and succeeded in defeating all Republican city officials in the August election. By December the emboldened party forced the black sheriff, Crosby, to flee to the state capital. Blacks who rallied to the city to aid the sheriff also had to flee in the face of superior white forces, as armed whites flooded the city. Over the next few days, armed white gangs may have murdered up to 300 blacks in the city and its vicinity, in what became known as the Vicksburg riots.
U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant sent a company of troops to Vicksburg in January 1875 to quell the violence and allow the sheriff's safe return. The sheriff was assassinated by his white deputy, A. Gilmer on June 7, 1875.
In 1875, under their Mississippi Plan, the Democrats conducted a political dual-pronged battle to reverse Republican strength in the state. White paramilitary organizations such as the Red Shirts arose to serve as "the military arm of the Democratic Party." Unlike the Ku Klux Klan (which was defunct by then), the Red Shirts operated openly, with members known in local areas; they sometimes invited newspaper coverage of their parades and activities, and their goals were political – to throw out the Republicans. They were well-armed, with private financing for the purchase of new weapons as they took on more power. The first step was to persuade the 10 to 15 percent of Scalawags (white Republicans) to vote with the Democratic party. Outright attacks and economic and political pressure convinced many carpetbaggers to switch parties or flee the state.
The second step of the Mississippi Plan was intimidation of freedmen and their families. Planters, landlords and merchants used economic coercion against black sharecroppers and farmers, with limited success. The Red Shirts more often used violence, including whippings and murders, and intimidation at the polls. They were joined in the violence by white paramilitary groups known as "rifle clubs," who frequently provoked riots at Republican rallies, shooting down dozens of blacks in the ensuing conflicts.
Although the governor requested Federal troops to curb the violence, President Ulysses S. Grant hesitated to act. He feared being accused of "bayonet rule" — which he believed would undoubtedly be exploited by Democrats to carry Ohio in that year's state elections. The violence went unchecked and the plan worked as intended: during Mississippi's 1875 statewide election, five counties with large black majorities polled only 12, 7, 4, 2, and 0 Republican votes, respectively. The Republican dominance of 30,000 votes in the 1874 national and city elections was reversed in 1875 to a Democratic majority of 30,000 in statewide elections.
The success of the white Democrats in Mississippi influenced the growth of Red Shirts in North and South Carolina as well. They were particularly prominent in suppressing black votes in majority-black counties in South Carolina. Historians estimated that they committed 150 murders in the weeks leading up to the 1876 election in South Carolina. Louisiana also produced white insurgents, known as the White League, who together with rifle clubs likewise suppressed black voting in the state by violence from 1874 on.
In 1877, U.S. federal troops were withdrawn from the Southern states, due to the national Compromise of 1877. White Democrats had control of all southern state legislatures, although blacks continued to be elected to local offices through the 1880s, and to Congress. In 1890 the Mississippi legislature drafted and passed a new constitution, which effectively disenfranchised and disarmed most blacks by erecting barriers to firearms ownership as well as voter registration, by a method of poll taxes, elaborate literacy tests, and residency requirements. When these legal provisions, which used race-neutral language, but were enforced in a discriminatory manner, survived legal challenges to the United States Supreme Court, other southern U.S. states, such as South Carolina, and even Oklahoma, adopted similar constitutions. Through the turn of the century to 1908, southern Democrats disenfranchised most black people and many poor whites (especially in Alabama) by enacting new state constitutions. Black people were effectively excluded from participating in the formal political system of the American South until the mid-1960s, when they gained federal legislation to support and defend their rights from being infringed upon.
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- Vernon L. Jordan, "The Race Issue in the Overthrow of Reconstruction in Mississippi:" A Paper Read before the American Historical Association, 1940, in Phylon (1940-1956), Vol. 2, No. 4 (4th Qtr., 1941), pp. 362-370, accessed 15 June 2015, via JSTOR (subscription required)
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- George C. Rable, But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984, p. 132
- Warren A. Ellem, "The Overthrow of Reconstruction in Mississippi," Journal of Mississippi History vol. 54, no. 2 (1992), pp. 175–201.
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- United States Senate, Mississippi in 1875. Report of the Select Committee to Inquire into the Mississippi Election of 1875 with the Testimony and Documentary Evidence. In Two Volumes. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1876. Volume 1 | Volume 2