Genesis Of Corruption
Part Two of Two
Mississippi’s Constitution Of 1890 Was
Crafted To Disenfranchise Blacks.
By Perry Hicks
Back in 1988, the public wasn’t shocked to learn 57 Mississippi county supervisors were federally indicted in Operation Pretense. The general assumption was that politicians were corrupt so the sheer number was no eye opener. For all the public knew that number could be low. After all, the state has a total of 410 supervisors overseeing 82 counties. What was surprising was that something was actually being done about it!
Operation Pretense resulted from a complaint filed in the early 1980s by a businessman and Pentecostal minister, John Burgess. The charge was that Burgess could not win a bid for county business without offering supervisors a kickback valued at 10% of the purchase price. Burgess agreed to help the FBI snare corrupt officials by opening a front operation. The sting ran from 1984 thru late 1987. In the end, 26 counties were disgraced by having between 1 to 5 supervisors indicted. That number could well have been more except that both agents and operatives were exhausted by the sheer magnitude of the investigation.
Here, in Part 2, we will look at how desperation drove the disenfranchised to seize power by any means necessary and how those lawless means were later made “respectable” by c1890. We will then look at the mechanisms that have enabled such pervasive levels of official corruption to flourish to this very day.
Run-up to c1890
History narratives can mislead readers if the focus lacks sufficient resolution to explain why events happen. For example, most American history texts of moderate depth will mention the race riots in New Orleans, Memphis, Yazoo City, and Clinton following the end of the “Civil War”. Not mentioned are the escalating property taxes that drove southerners from their farms. In 1869, land tax was only 10 cents on each dollar of accessed value. By 1875, that tax had risen to $1.40 and 27% of Mississippi’s total land mass had been forfeited in taxes. Thus, the “race riots” actually began as tax revolt riots precipitated by the government’s attempt to sell forfeited land.
Prior to the war, Mississippi’s aristocracy had belonged to the Whig Party. Whigs did not favor secession from the Union principally because it threatened their economic interests. Whigs were big planters, bankers, and later, railroad promoters. Owing to their education and organizational skills, the Whigs ascended to leadership in both state government and military leadership. Although in steep decline, the election of Abraham Lincoln and the outbreak of the war effectively ended the Whig Party.
After the war, former Whigs found themselves unable to align themselves with the majority Democrat viewpoint favoring agriculture over industrialization. As would be expected, the Whigs enjoined themselves with the Republican Party. However, when the ex-Whigs saw that cooperation with the northern Republicans would never be beneficial to the South, they abandoned the party of Lincoln and, like prodigal sons, crossed over to the Democrats.
By 1875, not only had the cross-over been complete, the Whigs had effectively taken control of the Democrat Party. Where resistance to Reconstruction had previously been sporadic and disorganized, Whig leadership concocted the Mississippi Plan to take back government.
The plan was multi-pronged but do-able: Where possible, influence blacks to vote Democrat; where not possible, intimidate; stuff ballot boxes; switch ballots for the illiterate; murder opponents if necessary. When the votes were counted, the Republicans were all but swept from power. This methodology was adopted all across the south.
Of course, the Army would not have permitted the Democrats to retain power earlier in Reconstruction. However, Republican excesses had finally caught up with them 15 years after the war and, at the national level, they found their power waning; Republicans were in a dead heat with Democrats in the race for the White House.
In the 1876 election, the Democrat presidential candidate, Samuel Tilden, had actually pulled about 250,000 more votes than Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. However, the two had tied for Electoral votes. Furthermore, while the Republicans held the Senate, the Democrats held the House. If Hayes were to be president, he would have to cut a deal with the Southern States.
The deal was simple: In trade for House Democrats allowing a Federal Electoral Commission report favoring Hayes, the new president would abide by the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and end Federal interference in state affairs. Federal troops would withdraw from the South. Hayes took power and good to his word, ordered Federal occupational troops out. By 1877, the last southern Republican governments collapsed.
By the 1890s, much of Mississippi’s political power had been exchanged between generations. The ex-Confederates were growing old but their sons, unencumbered by the 13th Amendment, had been able to assume office. However, the old days of southern solidarity were gone. Whites no longer formed a unified bloc. The same Mississippi Plan tactics used to suppress blacks were now being used on other Democrats.
Effects of c1890
is no secret that there has not been a full vote and a fair count in
Mississippi since 1875, that we have been preserving the ascendancy of the
white people by revolutionary measures. In other words, we have been
stuffing ballot boxes, committing perjury, and here and there in the state
carrying the elections by fraud and violence. The public conscience
revolted, thoughtful men everywhere foresaw that there was disaster
somewhere along the line of such a policy as certainly there is a
righteous judgment for nations as well as men. No man can be in favor of
perpetuating the elections methods which have prevailed in Mississippi
since 1875 who is not a moral idiot."
“Moral idiot” was an unfortunate selection of words in that there was no sentiment for resuming free and fair elections. On the contrary, c1890 was written specifically to insure white supremacy. The intention was that the disenfranchisement of African-Americans would be made legitimate by the supreme legal document of state government.
The method to suppress black participation was deceptively simple: Levy a poll tax and require voters to interpret any section of the state constitution. Of course, the judge as to the voter’s ability was the registrar.
As would be expected, the number of qualified black voters plummeted. In 1890, Mississippi actually had about 70,000 more black voters than white ones. By 1892, that number had dwindled to only 8,615.
What would not be expected is that the number of white voters was also dramatically reduced. Where in 1890 there had been about 120,000 voters, in 1892 there were only about 68,000. In other words, the white voter rolls had been nearly cut in half.
The poll tax had an accumulative effect on reducing the number of eligible voters. Although a tax of only 2 dollars per year would sound benign by today’s standards, it was substantial as most Mississippi farmers only earned about $411 per year. Because the tax had to be paid for two years prior to voting, if the voter fell behind the cost of catching up could become quite high. By 1901, only 30,000 white voters cast ballots out of a potential pool of 140,000.
This decline in voter participation may have enabled corrupt politicians to run state government solely for their personal benefit. Indeed, some politicians came to look on state office with some sense of personal entitlement. Finding themselves with no voice in government, small farmers increasing looked toward movements like The Grange and The Farmer’s Alliance to press populist agendas on the legislature. It wasn’t until 1903 that Mississippi began the party primary system. Never the less, party machinery kept elite politicians in power, and blacks and poor whites disenfranchised.
For more history on the political landscape of The War Between the States, see the companion piece: Sowing the Seeds of Corruption. [link]
Features of c1890
Without question, Article 3 (Bill of Rights) Sections 5 and 6 is the most salient portion of Mississippi’s Constitution. These sections make it manifestly clear that all government exists at the people’s pleasure. If one compares the various constitutional sections to Mississippi’s Reconstruction period, the reason for c1890’s language can be readily discerned. Every effort was made to disperse power away from central authority.
Section 5. All political power is vested in, and derived from, the people; all government of right originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.
Section 6. The people of this State have the inherent, sole and exclusive right to regulate the internal government and police thereof, and to alter and abolish their constitution and form of government whenever they may deem it necessary to their safety and happiness; provided, such change be not repugnant to the constitution of the United States.
As would be expected, the representatives of the people (legislature) retain the most power and control over the machinery of government. Indeed, the governor is little more than the commander-n-chief of the militia and naval forces.
Section 139. The legislature may empower the governor to remove and appoint officers, in any county or counties or municipal corporations, under such regulations as may be prescribed by law.
The governor does not have the power to remove or appoint county or municipal officers at his or her discretion. The governor must seek that power from the legislature. As might be imagined, seeking the removal of a county supervisor would likely become a political football. Without discretionary power to remove, the governor will not get respect from officials at the municipal or county level. In this way, 55 county supervisors were able to defraud tax payers for years before being caught in the web of Operation Pretense. Voters may be assured that wrong doing had been going on for decades.
An interesting note is that the governor does have the power to suspend defaulting state and local treasurers and tax collectors. As long as the tax money is collected, the machinery of government runs just fine.
A common political defense is for the voter to “throw the rascals out.” The problem here is that seldom are politicians given the heave-ho. Political maneuverings, buy-offs, and outright lying to a gullible public usually keeps the rascals in power. In the case of my cousins and uncles (and every other voter) being certain that supervisors were getting kick-backs was not enough to defeat the supervisors at the polls. When the voter pool is reduced in size to a select few, the few can be manipulated into re-electing the elite. That is, of course, if the election was run honestly.
Then there is the matter of how much oversight the legislature can bring to bear on local government. Some states have had to rely on a doctrine established in 1868 Iowa by Judge John F. Dillon. The opinion is called the Dillon’s Rule:
Municipal corporations owe their origin to, and derive their powers and rights wholly from the Legislature. It breathes into them the breath of life, without which they cannot exist. As it creates, so it may destroy. If it may destroy, it may abridge and control.
Mississippi is not a Dillon’s Rule state so the judiciary has evidently not evoked the Dillon’s Rule in regard to abridgement and oversight of local affairs. Within the limits of fairly wide boundaries, it would appear that county supervisors are almost autonomous.
[Note: The notion that the judiciary can take an activist stance and dictate to the other two branches of government goes back to the 1803 federal Marbury vs. Madison case; a 1789 law regarding the judiciary was struck down. U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall argued that while it is the jurisdiction of Congress to make laws, it is the jurisdiction of the courts to interpret them.]
Not only does the governor not have the power to remove or appoint local officers, Article 8 sets the sets the public education system outside the purview of the governor.
Section 202. There shall be a superintendent of public education elected at the same time and in the same manner as the governor, who shall have the qualifications required of the secretary of state, and hold his office for four years and until his successor shall be elected and qualified, who shall have the general supervision of the common schools, and of the educational interests of the State, and who shall perform such other duties and receive such compensation, as shall be prescribed by law.
Section 203. There shall be a board of education, consisting of the secretary of state, the attorney general, and the superintendent of public education, for the management and investment of the school funds, according to law, and for the performance of such other duties as may be prescribed. The superintendent and one other of said board shall constitute a quorum.
Section 204. There shall be a superintendent of public education in each county, who shall be appointed by the board of education by and with the advice and consent of the senate, whose term of office shall be four years, and whose qualifications, compensation and duties, shall be prescribed by law; provided, that the legislature shall have power to make the office of county school superintendent of the several counties elective, or may otherwise provide for the discharge of the duties of county superintendent, or abolish said office.
With the state superintendent of public education directly elected by the people and the state school board composed of the secretary of state, the attorney general, and the superintendent of public education, the administration of Mississippi’s schools also lack the accountability inherent in traditional checks and balances.
Again, one could argue that if the school systems were doing something to displease the public, a majority of voters could simply turn them out at the next election. However, this hardly ever happens for a variety of reasons. One is the lack of information reported to the public about internal educational affairs.
The taxpayer’s fiduciary protection stems from Article 4, Section 80 where a provision is made to prevent abuse through general laws. No oversight is afforded to the governor.
Section 80. Provision shall be made by general laws to prevent the abuse by cities, towns and other municipal corporations of their powers of assessment, taxation, borrowing money and contracting debts.
Separation of Powers
One interesting, if self evident, declaration is the separation of powers as lined out in Article 1, Section 2. Explicitly spelled out is the forbidding of members of one branch of government functioning or otherwise acting within the jurisdiction of another.
Section 2. No person or collection of persons, being one, or belonging to one, of these departments, shall exercise any power properly belonging to either of the others. The acceptance of an office in either of said departments shall, of itself, and at once, vacate any and all offices held by the person so accepting in either of the other departments.
Despite the clear prohibition of one branch’s members serving in the capacity of another, in the early 1980s, then Attorney General Bill Allain had to take the matter before the state Supreme Court to stop the practice. Of course, Allain won and this resulted in the Administration Reorganization Act of 1984.
Allain continued to press for constitutional reform after he took office as governor in 1984. He appointed a 350 member commission to study c1890 and a revision constitution was submitted to the legislature. Sadly, no action was taken. The legislature was simply not going to give up control to strengthen the oversight powers of the executive branch.
Later, amendments to c1890 did restructure the state board of education making the superintendent an appointment made by the governor. It also provided for a 9 member state board of education that is also appointed.
Responsibility of the Press
Regardless of apparent voter apathy, the press bears the responsibility to keep the public informed as to current events in government’s internal workings. Strangely though, this information is not always forthcoming. Small weekly local papers usually do the best job but also tend to do so in excruciatingly fine detail. They can also lack the resources to investigate and collect hard to get facts; so while they may report mind numbing minutia, big, and particularly difficult stories can escape them.
Today, it is the large dailies, and television news operations that can have the financial resources and political clout to not just get at facts but skillfully report them in an attention getting manner. Unfortunately, too often this does not happen. There is no reason that a prominent feature like the separation of powers would be violated for decades and the media not hammer the story home until the practice was stopped. There is no reason why tax payer money would be wasted- or the financial reports hidden- without a constant drumbeat of reporting until the facts were known and corrections were made. Yet, the press, either in partnership with, or desirous of access to high government officials, often fails to report to the public how government programs fail to serve the public. In that failure, both the government, and the press, is in partnership
Sidebar Story - The Seeds of Corruption
Perry Hicks is a former Mississippi Coast resident and was a correspondent for the old Gulfport Star Journal. He has appeared on Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor.” Perry has also hosted his own radio talk show on the auto industry with a mix of politics, and is a former Ford Motor Company technical trainer. He currently works as an Associate Professor of Automotive Technology at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, VA.
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