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Opinion | The Ghosts of Mississippi

Six years later, in 1896, a Black man named Henry Williams was indicted on charges of murder and sentenced to be hanged. He appealed on the grounds that the indictment was invalid: The jury had been drawn from a pool of registered voters, which, because the state Constitution had disenfranchised most Black voters by the time of his trial, was almost entirely white, and Williams argued that this was a violation of his 14th Amendment rights.

The case, Williams v. Mississippi, made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously, in what I believe is one of the most shocking decisions the court has ever handed down, that Williams had not shown that Mississippi’s new Constitution was discriminatory.

I have read the minutes from the constitutional convention. There is no question that its entire purpose was to discriminate and disenfranchise Black voters.

Justice Joseph McKenna delivered the opinion of the court, saying that “the Constitution of Mississippi and its statutes do not on their face discriminate between the races, and it has not been shown that their actual administration was evil; only that evil was possible under them.”

As Lawrence Goldstone wrote last year in his book “On Account of Race: The Supreme Court, White Supremacy, and the Ravaging of African American Voting Rights”:

“The opinion was also openly racist. McKenna cited a South Carolina Supreme Court ruling that declared ‘the Negro race had acquired or accentuated certain peculiarities of habit, or temperament, and of character which clearly distinguished it as a race from the whites; a patient, docile people, but careless, landless, migratory within narrow limits, without forethought, and its criminal members given to furtive offenses, rather than the robust crimes of the whites.’ ”

And just like that, the Supreme Court of the United States greenlit and rubber-stamped Jim Crow, formalizing in law a framework under which Black progress could be rolled back for decades.

Other states followed Mississippi’s example and convened constitutional conventions of their own, where they instituted statutes to disenfranchise Black people.

I couldn’t help but think of the ghosts of Mississippi while listening to the oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Wednesday in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

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