On this daySep 11, 1895

South Carolina Officials Rewrite Constitution; Disenfranchise Black Voters

Image | Sean Rayford

On September 11, 1895, South Carolina officials met to rewrite the state constitution with the express purpose of disenfranchising the state’s African American voters and restoring white supremacy in all matters political. The convention’s most prominent figure was Benjamin Tillman, a senator and former governor affectionately nicknamed “Pitchfork Ben." A renowned orator, Tillman spoke at great length during the convention.

"[A]ll that is necessary to bring about chaos," he warned the convention delegates, "is for a sufficient number of white men, actuated by hate, or ambition, or from any unpatriotic motive, to climb up and cut it loose, mobilize and register the negroes, lead them and give them a free vote and fair count under manhood suffrage." He continued:

The poor, ignorant cotton field hand, who never reaped any advantage, nor saw anything except a pistol, blindly followed like sheep wherever their black and white leaders told them to go, voted unanimously every time for the Republican ticket during that dark period, and these results were achieved solely and wholly by reason of the ballot being in the hands of such cattle. Is the danger gone? No. How did we recover our liberty? By fraud and violence...How did we bring it about? Every white man sunk his personal feelings and ambitions. The white people of the State, illustrating our glorious motto, "Ready with their lives and fortunes." came together as one. By fraud and violence, if you please, we threw it off. In 1878 we had to resort to more fraud and violence, and so again in 1880. Then the Registration Law and eight-box system was evolved from the superior intelligence of the white man to check and control this surging, muddy stream of ignorance...

The delegates followed Ben Tillman's guidance and enacted a constitution that effectively disenfranchised black residents, with little federal interference, for nearly seventy years. Today, a statue of Tillman stands in front of the South Carolina State House and his name adorns a number of buildings throughout the state -- including the main building on the campus of Clemson University.

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