On this date in 1897, John Gibson was hanged for murder.
In its particulars, the case itself was as minute and forgettable as a homicide ever could be: Gibson got into a spat with a plantation overseer over the theft of 20 or 25 cents from his wages. Later that night, still steaming and now drunk, he called the boss out through the window. The overseer went out to the confrontation armed (Gibson wasn’t), and wound up shot dead by his own gun in the struggle.
This literal two-bit crime became national news, however, and went twice to the Mississippi Supreme Court and twice to the U.S. Supreme Court as a vehicle to challenge Mississippi’s new Jim Crow constitution.
After Reconstruction but especially in the 1890s, the dreadful regime of American apartheid reversed black civil rights gains.
Mississippi’s all-white* constitutional convention of 1890 was a signal event for this nadir of race relations — the first of a wave of new southern constitutions aimed at setting up a color bar. In addition to mandating segregated schools, that constitution imposed a few, ahem, reasonable requirements for voting, which lacked any overt racial language but just so happened to disenfranchise the black electorate almost to a man. (Don’t even get started about women.**)
every voter must pay “a uniform poll tax of two dollars”;
“every elector shall … be able to read any section of the constitution of this State.” Now, lest one miss the intent here, Mississippi added a clause permitting anyone descended from a legal voter pre-1867 to cast a ballot without passing the exam: if your grandfather could vote, you could vote too … too bad if your grandfather couldn’t vote on account of being property. This one-two punch throughout the South kept poor whites on the right team, and bequeathed to English the phrase “grandfather clause”.
Both these gratuitous hurdles to voting are now confined to the history books, but two other important techniques of disenfranchisement remain very much in use today.
a needlessly onerous voter registration process;
and, the franchise is reserved for upstanding voters who have “never been convicted of bribery, burglary, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretenses, perjury, forgery, embezzlement or bigamy.” In a context where wholesale incarceration of African Americans was a matter of policy.
Plus of course, brute force up to and including lynch law for political terrorism. “In those days,” one black Mississippian said, “it was ‘Kill a mule, buy another. Kill a nigger, hire another.’ They had to have a license to kill anything but a nigger. We was always in season.”
From 1901 to 1973, the South never once seated a black lawmaker in the U.S. Congress.
So it’s a grim scene for racial justice in the twilight of the 19th century. But we dwell on the voting-rights aspect because jurors were drawn from the voting rosters: all the filters that excluded African Americans from the ballot box likewise excluded them from the jury box. And here’s where we get back to John Gibson.
Gibson’s case was taken up by African-American attorneys† Cornelius Jones and Emanuel Hewlett, who argued it all the way to a Supreme Court. R. Volney Riser argues in Defying Disfranchisement: Black Voting Rights Activism in the Jim Crow South, 1890-1908 that they weren’t just trying to save their client — they were mounting a cagey attack on the Mississippi constitution and the pillars of Jim Crow law. If Jones and Hewlett
could show a racial motive in refusing potential black voters (and likewise potential black jurors), they would have a reasonably strong case.
The elements of a strong, jury-based anti-disfranchisement case were in place for Jones and Hewlett and all that they really wanted was to have his case remanded to a U.S. district court. That might seem anticlimactic, but it would have meant that southern judges, sheriffs, and voting registrars would find themselves standing before federal district judges to justify their administration of jury selection and voter registration. In the immediate short term, there would almost surely be some benefit for disfranchised African Americans.
They argued the cases on December 13, 1895, and the Supreme Court announced decisions in Gibson and [a companion case] Smith on April 13, 1896, little more than one month before [Jim Crow landmark] Plessy v. Ferguson. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote both opinions and dismissed each case on jurisdictional grounds. The problem lay in the evidence, which was conspicuous by its paucity … Mississippi did not exclude blacks in terms … [and] in Gibson, Jones had not shown that Mississippi’s courts committed “any error of law of which this court may take cognizance” or that his client’s murder conviction “was due to prejudice of race.”
In the real world, where rights need enforcement if they are to thrive, this ruling had the effect of giving a free hand to white power so long as it had the sense God gave a vegetable and didn’t directly declare that any of its universally all-white juries (or electorates) were constituted as a matter of explicit race prejudice. Just a marvelous coincidence! Nothing to see here, you federal judges.
As the Southwestern Christian Advocate editorialized after the ruling (Apr. 23, 1896)
Proof need hardly be asked that there was a deliberate purpose on the part of the persons charged with that responsibility [i.e., seating juries] to absolutely ignore the colored man as a juror. This is the cold truth, that the sheriffs and other court officers who have charge of the impanneling of juries will not select colored men. The persistency with which they deny such intent is one of the most gigantic mysteries of the age.
Of course, there is no constitutional enactment on the statute books of the State of Mississippi denying the right of jury service to Negroes, yet they do not serve, and for the simple reason that they are not chosen. It is the easiest matter in the world to keep Negroes out of the jury box in Mississippi. It is one of their sovereign rights.
There is no enactment against it, nothing for it, so there it is. And what is the Supreme Court or the Federal government going to do about it? Why, simply render its decisions upon what it does not permit. The fact is that the amendments to the Constitution, so far as the black man is concerned, are not worth the paper they are written upon without the moral sentiments of high minded and noble people behind it. And this will apply to State, Federal and Supreme Courts as well.
Meanwhile, the black man is expected to be an intelligent and a loyal citizen, notwithstanding the rights which he fought and bled for are now almost exclusively in the hands of those who at one time sought to pull the fair fabric of our Constitutional liberties to the ground.
It’s still to this day the case that defendants have very little scope to scrutinize potentially prejudicial jury composition. It’s still to this day the case that the Supreme Court has nothing but a toothless remedy. And it’s still to this day the case that some state’s attorneys can and do craft racially discriminatory juries more prone to convict by excluding blacks … so long as it’s “not in terms” and instead for literally any other pretext.
* Except for one black man.
** Representative sentiment of a Mississippian: “We are not afraid to maul a black man over the head if he dares to vote, but we can’t treat women, even black women, that way. No, we’ll allow no woman suffrage.” Mississippi only ratified female suffrage in 1984.
† There are some claims out there that the first black attorney to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court did so only in 1910; I may be overlooking a nuance in the manner these issues were presented to the high court, but so far as I can discern, Gibson was argued by black attorneys. This source suggests that it was hardly the first.