Williams v. Mississippi 170 U.S. 213 (1898)

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WILLIAMS v. MISSISSIPPI 170 U.S. 213 (1898)

Williams is a realistic snapshot of our constitutional law on race at the turn of the century. A black man was tried in Mississippi for the murder of a white, convicted by an all-white jury, and sentenced to death. He alleged that he had been denied the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the fourteenth amendment, because the laws of the state were rigged in such a way as to exclude members of his race from jury service. In Mississippi, to be eligible for jury service one must be qualified to vote. To be a voter one must have paid his poll tax and have satisfied registration officials that he could not only pass a literacy test but also could understand or reasonably interpret any clause of the state constitution; registration officials had sole discretion to decide whether an applicant had the requisite understanding. In Mississippi at that time, a black graduate of Harvard Law School could not satisfy white officials. The state convention of 1890 clearly adopted new qualifications on the right to vote in order to insure white supremacy by disfranchising black voters. Under prior laws there were 190,000 black voters; by 1892 only 8,600 remained, and these were soon eliminated. Blacks disappeared from jury lists after 1892.

A unanimous Supreme Court, speaking through Justice joseph mckenna, held that the state constitution and laws passed under it, prescribing the qualifications of voters and jurors, did not on their face discriminate racially. McKenna also declared that the discretion vested in state and local officials who managed elections and selected juries, while affording the opportunity for unconstitutional racial discrimination, was not constitutionally excessive. Yet McKenna said, "We gather… that this discretion can be and has been exercised against the colored race, and from these lists jurors are selected." The Court recognized that a law on its face might be impartial and be administered "with an evil eye and an unequal hand," but it held that "it has not been shown that their actual administration was evil; only that evil was possible under them."

Leonard W. Levy

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Williams v. Mississippi 170 U.S. 213 (1898)

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