A majority of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals just voted to uphold an 1890 Mississippi law meant to disenfranchise the state’s Black voters. Judge James E. Graves Jr., a Barack Obama appointee, dissented. Graves criticized the ruling saying when “handed an opportunity to right a 132-year-old wrong, the majority instead upholds it.”
A native of Clinton, Mississippi, Judge Graves was appointed to the 5th Circuit in 2011. Writing in his dissent, Judge Graves said:
“This is the intent behind the law the en banc court upholds today. In 1890, Mississippi held a constitutional convention with the express aim of enshrining white supremacy. Today the en banc majority uphold a provision enacted in 1890 that was expressly aimed at preventing Black Mississippians from voting. And it does so by concluding that a virtually all-white electorate and legislature, otherwise engaged in massive and violent resistance to the Civil Rights Movement, ‘cleaned’ that provision in 1968.”
Graves is referring to Section 241 of the 1890 provision which permanently disenfranchised people convicted of burglary, bribery, theft, arson, bigamy, and embezzlement – crimes believed to “most likely” have been committed by Blacks.
One of the drafters of the 19th-century legislation, former Mississippi Governor and U.S. Senator James K. Vardaman was referred to as Mississippi’s “Great White Chief.”
“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,” Vardaman wrote at the time.
Added to the Mississippi constitution, Section 241 was amended in 1950, which the 5th Circuit used to justify letting the Jim Crow law stand amid claims that the current version of the provision “does not violate the Equal Protection Clause” — adding that the “plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of showing that the current version of Section 241 was motivated by discriminatory intent.”
They acknowledged the origins of the law were born of racism, but that enough changes have been made over the past century to override the Reconstruction era intent.
Even though, according to the Mississippi Free Press, a 2018 study found that Section 241 continues to disenfranchise Black residents over Whites disproportionately.
In 2017, the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Roy Harness and Kamal Karriem against the State of Mississippi alleging that the law violates 14th Amendment protections. Harness lost his right to vote after a 1986 conviction for forgery. He has since earned a degree in social work from Mississippi HBCU Jackson State.
Karriem was convicted of embezzlement in 2005 and is now a pastor who also runs his family’s restaurant. Neither man can legally vote, leading to the Mississippi Center for Justice’s suit against the state.
“For far too long, we as a nation have willfully deprived Black people of their right to vote—with Mississippi frequently leading the way,” MCJ President Vangela M. Wade said in a statement today. “This ruling doubles down on this legacy. Access to democracy should not hinge on outdated laws designed to prevent people from voting based on the color of their skin.”
“This provision was part of the 1890 plan to take the vote away from Black people who had attained it in the wake of the Civil War,” said Rob McDuff, an attorney with MCJ who argued that the Jim Crow violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of Equal Protection under the law. “Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals is allowing it to remain in place despite its racist origins.”
The intent of the 1890 convention was clear. Delegate J.H. McGehee was applauded by his colleagues when he “vowed to strip voting rights from Black residents,” adding, “Even if it does sacrifice some of my white children, or my white neighbors or their children.”
A product of the segregated south, Judge Graves is fully aware of the written – and unwritten – Jim Crow-era laws that remain in force today. He condemned what he says is the fact that Mississippians have “not been given the chance to right the wrongs of its racist origins.” He called out the court’s refusal to do the right thing.
“And this court, in failing to right its own wrongs, deprives Mississippians of this opportunity by upholding an unconstitutional law enacted for the purpose of discriminating against Black Missippians on the basis of their race,” Judge Graves stated.
The MCJ plans to appeal the Appeals Court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam”
— Nina Simone – Mississippi Goddam
Original reporting by Ashton Pittman at the Mississippi Free Press.
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News journalist for Occupy Democrats.