The Fight to Stop Jim Crow Before it Began

Robert Smalls

By Professor Damon L. Fordham, MA

When the Jim Crow laws that established segregation and restricted the rights of black people to vote in South Carolina passed in 1895, the average person may be under the impression that little was done by the black community to protest this development. The truth is that a courageous group of six black representatives and two whites took a strong stand against these unjust laws as they were about to take place.

In 1895, Senator Benjamin Tillman was one of the most open enemies of African Americans in South Carolina. He boasted of killing blacks in the Hamburg Massacre, spoke strongly against the education of blacks, turned over a black man named John Peterson to a lynch mob in 1893, and the following year, proposed to hold a state convention in Columbia to redraw the State Constitution to in part deny the blacks’ right to vote and segregate the schools by law. On September 10, 1895, 154 whites and six blacks, including Robert B. Anderson, Robert Smalls, Isaiah Reed, Thomas Miller, William J. Whipper, and James E. Wigg, (Smalls, Miller, and Whipper had ties to Charleston, Anderson was from Georgetown, and the others were from Beaufort) gathered in Columbia to debate this proposed constitution.

Benjamin Tillman

On October 2, Robert Smalls struck the first blow from the black delegates. When Tillman and the others proposed an amendment to ban marriages between black men and white women, Smalls proposed that the amendment include a section banning white men from having black mistresses. This caused shock among the white delegates, including Tillman, whose campaign manager was Will Thurmond (father of Strom). After the press praised Smalls for calling the bluff of the white delegates, the amendment passed with Smalls’ suggestion, though it was rarely enforced.

Thomas Miller

On October 25, Thomas Miller, a famed orator who would soon become the founding president of South Carolina State University, rose to speak. The State House was jammed with spectators of both races as he stood up to make his defense of the black citizens who were in danger of losing their rights.

“Call us aliens? We, aliens? The people who were the foundation of the American civilization, aliens? A people who, by their sweat, assisted in clothing the barren rocks of the Northeast in verdure, who drained the swamps of the South, and made them to mimic gold in harvest time; who by their endurance, toil, and suffering made it possible for our white neighbors to establish this government, the asylum of us all; who by their toil established the canal and railroad systems of this country- call us aliens? Then to whom can the term citizens be applied?”

Tillman grew concerned as Miller’s words were met with great applause and praise from newspapers outside of South Carolina. But perhaps the most powerful defense from the black delegates came on November 1 from William J. Whipper, a Beaufort Representative who practiced law in Charleston after the Civil War.

“This convention is about to make a great mistake in not giving the Negro latitude. The car of Negro progress is coming and instead of allowing it to come on, you wish to stop it. You may just as well make up your minds that the Negro will rise. He will not be crushed. The Negro will rise, sooner or later, crush us as you may. The Negro, with his perseverance and pluck, will and must come out. He cannot be kept down forever. It is not the nature of human affairs.”

William J. Whipper

So powerful were the pleas of the black delegates that when the final vote was held on December 4, two white delegates, T.E. Dudley of Marlboro County and J. Harleston Reed of Georgetown, bravely refused to go along with the white majority on the matter. Dudley felt the Constitution was “unwise’ and Reed felt it was unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the majority voted for the Jim Crow Constitution and as the black delegates refused to sign, Tillman and his followers sang in hollow mockery, “God be With You Until We Meet Again”.

For the next sixty years, blacks were mostly denied the right to vote in South Carolina, and the courageous stand of the black delegates remained almost buried in old newspaper accounts. However, on May 9, 1966, shortly after the modern Voting Rights Act was passed, Dr. Martin Luther King electrified a crowd at Tomlinson High School in Kingstree, SC by telling them of the bravery and intelligence of these men who lost the first battle against Jim Crow but vowed that their people would one day again rise.

Those who were present recalled that Dr. King’s recounting of this tale inspired them to get involved with politics and take control of their futures. It is hoped that this story will do the same with the youth of today.

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