One of Carroll County’s most prominent citizens was James Zacharian (J.Z.) George. George fought both in the Mexican War and the Civil War. He practiced law in both Carrollton, Miss., and Jackson. In 1879, he was made a judge on the Mississippi Supreme Court and was immediately elected to be Chief Justice. The following year, George resigned this position to become a U.S. Senator.
One of Senator George’s most significant contributions to Mississippi history was his participation in drafting the Mississippi Constitution of 1890. George is considered to be the principle author of the constitution and is specifically credited with drafting the suffrage clause.
The Mississippi Constitution of 1890 is significant to civil rights history because it established the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters that was copied across the nation. In 1890, African-Americans were not only the majority in Carroll County, but in Mississippi as a whole. As a result, the state constitutional convention undertook ways to constitutionally disenfranchise black citizens.
Previously, Mississippi law only required that a male over the age of twenty-one have lived in the state for six months and the county for one month in order to register to vote, but Article 12 of the 1890 constitution added new requirements. Section 241 increased the residency requirement to two years in the state and one year in the county. Section 243 imposed a two dollar poll tax on every inhabitant between the ages of twenty-one and sixty. The 1890 constitution also required a literacy test; before it was amended in 1954, Section 244 required that the registrant be able to read a section of the constitution, or, if unable to read, be able to understand a section of the constitution when read to him or give a “reasonable interpretation”of the section.
The 1890 constitution was successful in disenfranchising black citizens. In Mississippi, African-American voter registration was only one-tenth of white voter registration. This disenfranchisement was particularly important because many other civil rights are connected to being registered to vote, such as holding office and, until 1960, serving on juries. Most of these requirements for voter registration have now been repealed.
Gabriel J. Chin, The “Voting Rights Act of 1867”: The Constitutionality of Federal Regulation of Suffrage During Reconstruction, 82 N.C. L. REV. 1581, 1592 (2004).
HUEY B. HOWERTON, ET AL., YESTERDAY’S CONSTITUTION TODAY, 6-7 (Edward H. Hobbs ed., University of Mississippi 1960).
Miss. Const. art. XII, Â§ 241 (amended 1972).
Gabriel J. Chin, Rehabilitating Unconstitutional Statutes, 71 U. CIN. L. REV. 421, 422 (2002) (citing U.S. COMMISSION ON CIVIL RIGHTS: THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT: TEN YEARS AFTER, 43 (1975)).
Medgar Evers was killed on June 12, 1963, and in 1994, some thirty years later, Byron De La Beckwith was convicted of murdering Evers. Although originally from California, Beckwith bought seventy acres of rural property in Carroll County, Mississippi. Beckwith intended that the property be used as a retreat for himself and his friends in the Ku Klux Klan. His plans were to “establish his own racist movement, where he could preach his ideas and theology to those who wanted to listen.”Beckwith envisioned a firearms range, offices, barracks, and gardens that would serve as a retreat. Beckwith married Thelma Lindsay Neff in 1983 and they moved to Signal Mountain in Tennessee.
Beckwith also registered to vote in Carroll County. While he was jailed in Tennessee in 1991, The Clarion Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, ran articles about Beckwith’s eligibility to vote in Carroll County. Apparently, Beckwith contacted several law firms in Tennessee and no one was able to help him. Beckwith then contacted the Circuit Clerk of Carroll County, who was an old friend, and was reassured that he could still vote in Carroll County. In a letter to Beckwith on March 6, 1986, the Circuit Clerk wrote, “As long as I am Circuit Clerk, you can vote at Black Hawk. Of course, if someone contested it we might have to do different.”The Carroll County Election commission voted on August 6, 1991, to allow Beckwith to vote in Mississippi’s gubernatorial race. Commissioner Edward Corder explained that “Beckwith has a ‘lifetime residency’ in Carroll County through a 1984 deed on property Beckwith sold.”
REED MASSENGILL, PORTRAIT OF A RACIST: THE MAN WHO KILLED MEDGAR EVERS? 2 (St. Martin’s Press 1994).
Olemiss.edu, Medgar Evers, http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/english/ms-writers/dir/evers_medgar/ (last visited April 15, 2007).
See Jerry Mitchell, Beckwith Eligible To Vote In Carroll County, Circuit Clerk Says, CLARION LEDGER, June 9, 1991, at 1A; Jerry Mitchell, Carroll County Says Beckwith Can Vote From Tenn. Jail, CLARION LEDGER, Sept. 4, 1991, at 1B.
Elizabeth Spencer was born in Carrollton, Mississippi on July 19, 1921. In 1953, Spencer went to Italy on a Guggenheim Fellowship. She wrote The Voice at the Back Door while there. Summarizing her novel, Elizabeth Spencer says, “It takes place in a small Mississippi county seat around the late ’40’s and concerns a race for county sheriff in which the hero, Duncan Harper, a one-time Ole Miss football star, is persuaded to enter. His fine but somewhat simplistic character leads him to believe that a new approach to race can be introduced in this traditional society.”
The book also deals with events that occurred in the generation before. Years earlier a white mob killed a group of African-Americans at the courthouse seeking a hearing. In her memoir, Elizabeth Spencer writes about the old crime that no one would ever talk about. The old crime was the Carrollton Courthouse Massacre of 1886. Spencer recalls seeing the bullet holes in the courtroom but never really understanding exactly what happened March 17, 1886. Spencer remembers that when it came time to write The Voice at the Back Door, she just made up a story about the massacre. She says, “But the fact that it happened in the courthouse, the center of a Southern town, the symbol of justice; and the fact that county politics centered there tooâ€”these two things gave me my tale.”
Spencer came back to Mississippi with her unpublished novel to find that things had changed while she was away. In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education. Shortly after, in 1955, Emmett Till was murdered in the nearby Mississippi Delta. Spencer writes:
“I realized to my horror that in my absence from the state a precipitate moment had come and gone, and that the local scene which in my manuscript I had hopefully allowed to contain the actionâ€”with its many ramifications in love and blessingâ€”had already as good as vanished.”
Though Spencer’s character, Duncan Harper, seemed “hopelessly idealistic”in the changing climate of the South, Spencer ultimately decided to publish the book as she had written it.
ELIZABETH SPENCER, THE VOICE AT THE BACK DOOR xviii (McGraw-Hill Book, Co. 1965) (1956).
Elizabethspencerwriter.com, Elizabeth Spencer Works, http://www.elizabethspencerwriter.com/works/voiceatthebackdoor.htm (last visited April 15, 2007).
Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, Elizabeth Spencer, in DICTIONARY OF LITERARY BIOGRAPHY, VOLUME 6: AMERICAN NOVELISTS SINCE WORLD WAR II, SECOND SERIES (James E. Kibler Jr. ed., 1980)
347 U.S. 483 (1954).