Gil Carmichael, the 88-year-old Meridian businessman and former GOP gubernatorial candidate, is one of a disappearing band of Republican progressives.
He says it’s time for the embattled Confederate-image state flag to go. But along with it, the unloved 1890 horse and buggy state constitution must go. Aside from the constitution’s notorious suppression of black voters, Carmichael contends the ancient document has kept Mississippi stuck in last place.
Carmichael ran for lieutenant governor in 1984 on a platform calling for a new state constitution. He even appointed a statewide non-partisan, bi-racial committee to study the question of a new constitution. It proposed calling for a constitutional convention.
In the 125-year history of the state constitution, four governors (all Democrats) have called for rewriting the state’s fundamental document. After bitter legislative struggles, none has succeeded. The most dramatic battles came during the terms of progressives Martin (Mike) Conner in 1932 and J.P. Coleman in 1956.
Carmichael doesn’t have anything nice to say about his Republican Party. “The party is the party of emancipation, but it has lost its soul,” he says. “A new constitution and a new state flag offers them an opportunity to regain it.”
Those two monumental reforms by this deep South state, Carmichael told me, “would really let Mississippi rejoin the Union.” Actually, Congress under an 1870 act had readmitted Mississippi provided the state did not amend or change its constitution (that meant the constitution of 1868 which was the only constitution submitted to a vote of the people and had considerable input from black citizens, then known as Republicans.)
In his valuable 1947 book, “The Negro in Mississippi--1865-1890” former Millsaps College history professor Vernon Lane Wharton relates that the 1868 constitution won adoption by voters of that day (predominantly Democrats, today’s Republicans) on the strength of information that federal occupation under the then-popular Gen. Alvin Gillem, would end with the expected national Democratic party victory won later in the year.
Wharton’s incisive study of the Reconstruction era in Mississippi relies heavily on scouring county and small town intensely partisan newspapers for nuggets of what the people and their political leaders were thinking. In his study, Wharton makes clear that when the Democrats of that time pushed the idea of writing a new constitution in 1890, they had no intention to comply with the 1870 Congressional mandate that any new state constitution should preserve the right of blacks to vote and hold public office.
Thus, the 1890 document installed what was known as the “black code,” built around the nefarious “read and understand” provision whereby white voter registrars required black voter applicants to interpret some constitutional section. Inevitably the registrar would fail the black applicant. At least one county clerk was noted for asking black applicants “how many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?”
Wharton details the chicanery and violence which accompanied the campaigning of black candidates for delegates to the 1890 constitutional convention. Though no blacks were expected to be elected, one exception was made to make Isaiah Montgomery, a wealthy black plantation owner and founder of the all-black town of Mound Bayou, a delegate.
Somewhat amazingly, as Wharton points out, Montgomery went along with writing the black code (the “read and understand” clause). The anti-business, anti-corporate provisions Carmichael charges are in the constitution, Wharton implies, were aimed at discouraging large outside companies coming into the state and hiring black farm laborers.
“Both the flag and the old constitution reflect hate and intimidation of black people,” says Carmichael. “And both should go.”