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Debate Over Disfranchisement: Democrats

In 1900, the Democrats, once again led by Furnifold Simmons, embraced many of the same issues and tactics that had proven successful two years earlier. Democratic speakers appeared all over the state to promote the cause of white supremacy and editor Josephus Daniels and his political cartoonist Norman Jennett supplied a stream of editorials and political cartoons which both supported the Democrats’ agenda and attacked leading Populists and Republicans. For the Democrats, the central issue of the campaign was the passage of the Suffrage Amendment, and as such, Democratic surrogates like Daniels and Jennett devoted particular attention to this issue. The Democrats focused their arguments for the proposed amendment largely on both the need for white supremacy and the desire to put an end to “negro domination.” (Perman 2001, 163; Edmonds 1951, 200; Redding 2003, 129-133)

In his speech at the North Carolina Democratic Convention, Chairman Simmons neatly summed up his party’s position. He argued that if white men would and could always stand together, an amendment such as the one proposed would not be needed; however, he did not believe this was possible (or even desirable) because in order for white men to seriously debate the issues and vote according to their beliefs, they had to be free to disagree with one another. In order to ensure such open debate without giving up the benefits of white supremacy, Simmons maintained, white North Carolinians must pass the Suffrage Amendment. Simmons also justified the amendment on the basis of what he called the “well recognized and essential differences in the moral and intellectual attributes of the two races.” To support this claim, he extolled the virtues of the uneducated white voter who, despite his lack of formal education, was qualified for the vote based on his hallowed white ancestry. Simmons continued thatwhite voters, regardless of their ability to read or write, understood the issues as well as the significance of suffrage. But, an uneducated African American was almost “always an ignorant man, dull, heavy without opinion, without convictions, with but little judgment and scarcely any independence,” who failed to appreciate the consequences of the ballot he cast. While the voting rights of uneducated whites needed to be protected (hence the grandfather clause of the amendment), Simmons claimed that it was best for everyone if the voting rights of African Americans were rescinded. (Item 607)

These racist sentiments were a staple in Democratic pro-amendment arguments. The Democrats maintained that experience had proven that African Americans were not capable voters and that the time had come for white men, regardless of political affiliation, to put an end to their interference in politics. For example, an article entitled “The Amendment Good For All Parties” from the News and Observer included lists addressed to the members of each party which claimed to explain why it was in that party’s best interests to vote for the amendment. While there are some differences between the lists, several concurrent themes run between them, including the idea that disfranchising African Americans would lead better government, fair elections, and safer communities. These similarities suggested that all white men, Populist, Democrat, or Republican, had a vested interest in maintaining white supremacy and should therefore stand with their race in the upcoming vote rather than their party. The fourth, and perhaps most interesting list, however, actually claimed that even African Americans, or at least sensible African Americans, should support the amendment because it would go a long way toward improving the relationship between the races. In contrast to the virulent language of the other three lists (the Democratic list for example suggested that, if left to their own devices African Americans “would relapse into barbarism and soon be eating one another”), this list was more sedate and, while still tinged with racist sentiment, addressed African Americans more respectfully, arguing that there were at least a few black North Carolinians who might be worthy of the franchise. While it is unlikely that the Democrats found many sympathetic African American ears for these arguments, particularly given some of the ideas expressed in the other three sections, they may have helped to persuade some whites that the amendment would benefit everyone regardless of their race. (Item 590)

Throughout the campaign, the Democrats maintained that the Suffrage Amendment was necessary in order to prevent “negro rule.” As historian Michael Perman pointed out in reference to the 1898 election, this argument , was not necessarily easy to support since the majority of officeholders and, for that matter, voters, in North Carolina were white. (Perman 2001, 157) For those who remained unconvinced, the Democrats attempted to show how African Americans could indirectly “rule” over whites simply by exercising their right to vote. In an article called “Emancipation Day,” the News and Observer claimed that “for thirty years more than one hundred thousand capable white voters in North Carolina have been virtually disfranchised because their voters have been killed by the voters of that number of incompetent negroes.” The article went on to suggest that white North Carolinians had accepted this situation for years but, since 1895 (a year which not so coincidentally saw the beginning of the Fusionist administration), the political affairs of the state had deteriorated to such a degree that silence was no longer possible. This argument suggested that despite having thirty years to come to terms with the electoral process, African Americans had proven themselves incapable of supporting good (i.e. Democratic) government. And further, that in order to prevent the continuation of “negro domination,” African Americans must be removed from government. (Item 595)

In addition, the Democrats maintained that because their opponents (particularly the Republicans) were dependent on the votes of African Americans, Fusionist leaders were themselves essentially agents of “negro domination,” who were unconcerned about the problems of whites. Even Populist leaderswere considered guilty because of their association with the “Black Republican” party, though their party was predominantly white. (Perman 2001, 24-25) For example, a Norman Jennett cartoon from the May 24, 1900, issue of the Raleigh News and Observer, depicted a large, well-dressed African-American man flanked by two smaller white men labeled Butler and Pritchard, prominent leaders of the Populist and Republic Parties respectively, clinging to his coattails. This image and the caption beneath it which reads “These Three Have Met Before,” implies that the Fusionists had once again allied themselves with African American voters in an effort to drive out the Democratic Party (and by extension the white man’s government), just as they had during the 1894 and 1896 elections. The increased size of the African American figure as well as the diminished size and stance of the white politicians, further suggested that the white men were not the dominant figures in the alliance. But, instead, the interests of African Americans were dominating whites. The cartoon, thus, provided a visual representation of the kind of “negro domination” that Democrats warned would result by allowing African Americans to vote. The candidates themselves may have been white, but their masters, at least according to the Democrats, were all too often black. (Item 512)

Finally, the Democrats used the threat of increased “negro domination” to warn voters of the dire consequences which could result from a failure to act on the suffrage issues. A June 26 cartoon by Norman Jennett provides an excellent example of this argument. It depicted the state of North Carolina as a cartoonish black man surrounded by white states which had already disfranchised African Americans or, in the case of Virginia, were in the process of doing so. The image suggested the fact that other southern states had successfully adopted disfranchisement. But, more importantly, that if North Carolina failed to do so, it could become a bastion of “negro domination” in a sea of white supremacy as uneducated African Americans from throughout the South flocked to the only southern state in which they could vote. In order to prevent this fate, the cartoon implied, white men must stand up in favor of disfranchisement. (Item 541)



Debate Over Disfranchisement: Democrats