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FW: Murray on Feldman, _The Disfranchisement Myth_ (2004) [Alabama]

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  • Amos J Wright
    Fyi... ajwright@uab.edu ... From: H-Net Gilded Age and Progressive Era List [mailto:H-SHGAPE@H-NET.MSU.EDU] On Behalf Of C. Wyatt Evans Sent: Wednesday,
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      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-Net Gilded Age and Progressive Era List
      [mailto:H-SHGAPE@...] On Behalf Of C. Wyatt Evans
      Sent: Wednesday, October 12, 2005 7:50 AM
      To: H-SHGAPE@...
      Subject: RVW: Murray on Feldman, _The Disfranchisement Myth_ (2004)

      [The following review is crossposted from H-SOUTH]

      Published by H-South@... (October 2005)

      Glenn Feldman. _The Disfranchisement Myth: Poor Whites and Suffrage
      Restriction in Alabama_. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004.
      xiii+171 pp. Maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95
      (cloth), ISBN 0-8203-2615-1.

      Reviewed for H-South by Gail S. Murray, Department of History, Rhodes

      Race Trumps Class in New South Alabama

      In this narrowly focused, deeply researched book, Glenn Feldman seeks to

      forever banish one oft-repeated mantra of New South political history:
      populist hill-country whites joined with African Americans to oppose
      disfranchisement during the height of Jim Crow. This assumption is a
      myth, he argues, because poor whites were just as ready to curtail black

      voting as any deep South planter. When Alabamians adopted a new
      Constitution in 1901, most poor whites approved self-destructive
      suffrage limitations in order to ensure the exclusion of African
      Americans from the polls. Feldman deconstructs the machinations of
      Alabama politicians who engineered the call for a Constitutional
      Convention in 1900, oversaw the writing of the new document, and guided
      its adoption. In this short book, Feldman provides what will surely
      become the definitive study of Alabama politics between 1898 and 1902.
      Scholars in other southern states will need to explore their own states'

      voting patterns on disfranchisement legislation more closely to see if
      the Feldman thesis holds in their locale as well. Surely all who teach
      the New South will reexamine their understanding of the political role
      played by poor whites.

      The strengths of this book are many: exhaustive archival research into
      political lives; precise reconstruction of political decision making
      based on Convention records; extensive use of contemporary editorials; a

      comprehensive bibliography; clear and often lyrical prose; and a more
      careful construction of the argument than this review can convey. What
      will bring this reviewer back to the book again and again are the
      chilling quotations--mostly from newspapers of the day--of white
      spokesmen about African-American citizens. Should you ever underestimate

      the vitriolic language in play at the turn of the century, just examine
      some of Feldman's examples from poor white, hill country newspapers. For

      example, from the _Marshall Banner_, "'All coons look alike' to us, and
      have the same smell whether his name be Booker Washington [or not] ...
      [He] is still a negro and should understand that he must remain in the
      proper place" (p. 87). In a long diatribe, the _Clanton Banner_ wrote,
      "Remove the negro into the humiliated station of life that nature
      intended for him" (p. 57). Feldman finds "the plain folk" consistently
      embracing such racist assumptions.

      _The Disfranchisement Myth_ begins with Feldman defining the title term,

      which he coined to describe the assumption "that common whites opposed
      suffrage restriction" for African Americans because they knew their own
      citizenship rights were equally vulnerable (p. 1). He explains how a
      superficial examination of voting returns coupled with a sympathy for
      the independent white farmer led such preeminent scholars as C. Vann
      Woodward, J. Morgan Kousser, and Michael Perman to assume that votes
      against black disfranchisement represented a fusion of African-American
      and poor white voters even after the demise of Populism.[1] As the
      reader begins this introduction, however, she has the sense of being
      dropped into an ongoing professional conversation about the role of poor

      whites in progressive-era Alabama. The author spends no time developing
      a national (or southern) historical context nor reviews the history of
      poor white and African-American collaboration during the Populist era.
      Neither does he define basic terms such as "poor white" or "wiregrass."
      This is a work for specialists in Alabama history and Feldman goes right

      to task, illustrating three reasons that the "disfranchisement myth" has

      endured and calling for a reexamination of this myth.

      The first chapter begins with a thoughtful description of scientific
      racism and southern whites' preoccupation with black political power
      under Reconstruction. These ideologies brought Alabama whites together,
      even when planter interests and yeoman interests might otherwise
      diverge. Rather than painting poor whites as "blameless victims of
      draconian patrician machinations," (p. 23) Feldman positions poor whites

      as willingly sacrificing some political power in order to guarantee
      white privilege. Even avid white populists "were white men first" (p.
      24). Feldman uses the Alabama Senatorial race of 1900 as a prelude to
      the kind of racist rhetoric that would dominate the constitutional
      convention debates soon to follow. Incumbent John Tyler Morgan defeated
      former governor Joseph F. Johnston by trumpeting white supremacy and
      making race the primary issue in a campaign between two very similar
      candidates. Feldman finds that Morgan was able to effectively dismember
      what had been the populist coalition by hammering on black inferiority.

      In the second chapter, the author analyzes the politics behind calling a

      constitutional convention as opposed to continuing to disfranchise
      African Americans by force or through state law alone. He argues that
      proponents built on the racial rhetoric of the 1900 Senate campaign to
      emphasize the need for whites to establish their hegemony concretely.
      Two tropes continually reappeared in speeches, editorials, and planning
      meetings: the horrors of Radical Republican Reconstruction and the
      intellectual superiority of whites. He uses the minutes of the
      Democratic State Convention to produce a detailed discussion of the
      political maneuvering within the Democratic leadership to secure the
      call for a convention. His close examination of newspapers in the
      predominantly white, non-planter counties reveals deep racist attitudes,

      whereas planter-dominated areas voiced paternalistic platitudes.
      Opposition to calling a convention came mainly from those who either
      found it unnecessary, as the black vote was well-controlled already, or
      who feared that a new Constitution might also deprive them of voting
      rights. Pro-constitution advocates countered with assurances that the
      great sacrifices of poor whites in the Great War would never be
      forgotten. Enough voters believed this "pledge" that the call for a
      convention passed by a 24,800 state-wide vote margin.

      The Convention itself produced a document that would take effect in two
      stages, a temporary plan from 1901-1903 whereby voting was restricted
      "by literacy and property tests ... [and] a poll tax" only (p. 90). The
      permanent Constitution would take effect in 1903 with "five
      disfranchising mechanisms with no corresponding loopholes for poor
      whites. ... All five could be equally applicable to blacks and poor
      whites" (pp. 90-91). Thus the new Constitution embedded class privilege
      as it excluded African-American and poor white voters.

      A separate chapter covers the ratification process itself. Ratification
      arguments also took two trajectories: blatant arguments about the
      inferiority of African Americans (p. 1) and the frightening specter of
      radical reconstruction rule (p. 2). Either way, ratification supporters
      heralded white supremacy and the necessity that whiteness trump class
      interest. Feldman reconstructs voting county by county to illustrate how

      little of the anti-Constitution vote was actually composed of poor
      whites. Instead, opposition came from some black voters and some white
      planter paternalists who saw no need for further restraints of the
      franchise. White males, regardless of class, were equally susceptible to

      racist arguments and to the hollow promise that no whites would lose
      their vote. According to Feldman, most poor white voters bought these
      arguments and "privileged Democracy had its way" (p. 125). An appendix
      contains detailed tables of voting for both calling the convention and

      Did poor whites, in fact, lose their political voice under the new
      voting requirements? In 1903, the statewide total of registered white
      voters fell by 41,329 men despite a growing Alabama population. Some
      "reform" Democrats and poor whites who had opposed the new Constitution
      rallied to urge the party to adopt a (white) primary hoping to give
      non-elites a voice. This final gesture cemented black disfranchisement,
      as both political parties became "lily-white," but did nothing to
      empower the poor farmer.

      When Feldman writes in his conclusion that "[i]t is not a pretty sight
      to see plain people unwittingly work harm to their future prospects
      because of a shortsighted indulgence of emotion and, in fact, of
      prejudice," the reader suspects that the author is also addressing
      contemporary political behavior (p. 167). The willingness of working
      class voters to vote against their own economic interests in order to
      voice support for perceived moral values rings true in the last
      presidential election. People do not "make political decisions based on
      rational estimations of their political interests" (p. 167). Indeed!

      Having convinced the reader, I hope, that this is in fact a very
      important book, this reviewer must also lodge two caveats. As carefully,

      forcefully, and articulate as Feldman's argument is, it is just one
      argument about a very specific political event in only one state. It
      would have made a superb journal article and as such, secured a larger
      audience than it will probably find as a hardback monograph. An article
      could be assigned to classes with ease--and with much profit, not only
      for its content, but also as an example of research skill and excellent
      prose writing. Why is it that scholars feel compelled to include every
      possible piece of evidence in order to stretch an argument into a slim
      book? Are tenure and promotion guidelines driving decisions about how to

      publish our work? One result of the decision to present this research as

      a monograph is that the thesis is repeated and repeated in every
      chapter. It is fine micro-history, but may not get the wide reading
      audience it deserves.

      A second quibble is that the best of the new political history views
      political choices through the lens of not only race and class, but also
      of gender. This reader found but one paragraph that dealt with the use
      of racial rhetoric in the woman suffrage debate. The book pays no
      attention to the cooperation, even the lead, of women in promoting white

      superiority and in segregating people of color to the fringes of proper
      society. Since the author cites both Jane Dailey's and Glenda Gilmore's
      works in his one paragraph, he surely understands how much of the power
      of white cultural formation must be attributed to women and women's


      [1]. C. Vann Woodward, _Origins of the New South, 1877-1913_ Reprint
      (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971) and _The Strange
      Career of Jim Crow_, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974);
      Morgan J. Kousser, _The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage
      Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910_
      (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974); Michael Perman, _Struggle for
      Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908_ (Chapel Hill:
      University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

      [2]. Jane Dailey, _Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in
      Post-Emancipation Virginia_ (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
      Press, 2000); Glenda E. Gilmore, _Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the
      Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920_(Chapel Hill:
      University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

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      author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and
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      contact the Reviews editorial staff: hbooks@mail.h-net.msu.edu.
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