The Center for Grassroots Oversight

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Profile: Marsh Cook

Marsh Cook was a participant or observer in the following events:

The US Supreme Court upholds a Mississippi law requiring citizens to pass a literacy test before being allowed to vote. The Williams v. Mississippi decision holds that such tests do not violate the Fifteenth Amendment (see February 26, 1869) as long as they are applied equally to all prospective voters. The literacy test stemmed from a state “Constitutional convention” that codified a “compromise” between white slaveowners and those who opposed their iron control of the Mississippi state government. The compromise would declare all illiterate Mississippi citizens as ineligible to vote, but the real purpose of the convention—to disenfranchise blacks—was well known. James Kimble Vardaman, who would later become governor, said of the convention: “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. Mississippi’s constitutional convention was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the n_gger from politics; not the ignorant—but the n_gger.” White Republican Marsh Cook challenged the Democrats for a seat to the convention and was murdered in response. The only African-American delegate to the convention, Isaiah Montgomery, was invited because of his willingness to support disenfranchisement. The convention established the literacy test, establishing as a proper test the reading of any selected section of the Mississippi Constitution, or giving a valid explanation of it once it was read to the voter. Registrars would interpret the success or failure of the voters’ attempts to pass the test. Since all Mississippi registrars are white, the likelihood that even a literate African-American would pass the test was slim at best. However, the Court ignores the intent of the law to disenfranchise blacks, writing: “[T]he operation of the constitution and laws is not limited by their language or effects to one race. They reach weak and vicious white men as well as weak and vicious black men, and whatever is sinister in their intention, if anything, can be prevented by both races by the exertion of that duty which voluntarily pays taxes and refrains from crime.” Other states, mainly Southern, will quickly adopt their own version of literacy tests. (PBS 2002; PBS 12/2006)


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