A Mississippi Legend Clears Up His State’s Messy History With The 13th Amendment
“To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” – Abraham Lincoln
With the optics of the Second Inauguration of President Barack Obama, coming no less as we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is a proud and also profound day for our country that these two men should be so enmeshed.
But we should also be reminded – indeed, obligated – to remember our history of race and racism and the intractable shame and horrors of slavery. In doing my own personal look-back and reflection over the weekend, I discovered a few things that knocked the wind right out of me. As a Southerner, I cannot help but to ask: WHY?
Why has Mississippi never officially ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution?
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Mississippi has never properly and officially ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to our Constitution. This is a fact. Ironically, Mississippi calls itself “The Hospitality State”. I suppose if you’re Mitt Romney eating a “cheesy grit” for the first time, sure. Now, I know a lot of good people from Mississippi, but symbolism matters – to the outside world, and, it must matter to the people of Mississippi. Oftentimes, a symbolic gesture is more important than much of anything else.
A brief history of the 13th Amendment:
At the time the Amendment was proposed (January 31, 1865), there were 36 states in the Union. Of the 36 states, only 27 (three-fourths) were needed for ratification. The first state to ratify, of course, was President Lincoln’s Illinois (February 1, 1865). Georgia, on December 6, 1865, was the clincher. So, technically, the U.S. did not need Mississippi’s approval to add the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
Of the 9 states remaining – Oregon, California, Florida, Iowa, New Jersey, Texas, Delaware, Kentucky and Mississippi – only Mississippi never officially ratified. To give some perspective, Texas did so in 1870. Delaware in 1901. Kentucky….not until 1976. And Mississippi – what can be said of Mississippi, with a 37% African American population and a vividly painful past?
A state with a generally poor record of being dragged along the roads of change. It was not until 1987 that it repealed its ban on interracial marriage (remember, Loving v. Virginia became the law of the land in 1967). It is also one of three states (with Arkansas and Texas) to never formally ratify the 24th Amendment abolishing the poll tax. They issued their own “repeal” in 1989 (1989!), but again, purely symbolic, never formalized with the federal government. So to, goes Mississippi’s history with the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), never ratified. In 1978, when Congress extended the original ERA deadline to 1982, it was still three states short of ratification. Mississippi was one of these three; in fact, the Mississippi Legislature was the only state legislature in the country to never even vote on the Amendment.
So in 1994, when a clerk in the Texas legislature discovered that Mississippi had not yet ratified the 13th Amendment, a movement began to have the state do just that. The clerk, Gregory Watson, singled out the African American members of the Mississippi legislature and mailed letters to them each to bring their attention to this grave slight.
There is much written of the date March 16, 1995, when Mississippi joined the rest of the civilized world – 130 years later – by becoming the last of the 36 Union states to ratify the 13th Amendment. NINETEEN NINETY-FIVE. It is true, the Mississippi House of Representatives did unanimously vote to ratify on this date. However, the final step in making it truly “official” was never taken. Contrary to intent, the vote was never submitted to Congress or to the U.S. Archivist. Thus, rendering the 1995 “ratification” purely symbolic. There remains today a stark asterisk next to the initials of the state of Mississippi as related to abolition on a federal level, as one of the original 36 states in the Union at the time, and perhaps too one with the toughest history of injustice to swallow.
That asterisk, hopefully – finally – may soon be removed. In trying to track down what exactly may have happened – was this intentional; an oversight; a simple error in the chain of command – I spoke today with Mississippi State Senator Hillman Frazier (D-Jackson), who has been in the legislature in his state for 33 years. Senator Frazier graciously took some time for me on this Holiday.
I first confirmed with the Senator, who was instrumental in the 1995 movement, that the final step in “making it official” was never taken. Senator Frazier explained:
“….I thought that step had been taken at that time. So what happened was, I believe we changed our Secretary of State and then we never did follow through with notifying Archives and History in Washington. So what I’m going to do is, I’m going to talk to our current Secretary of State [Delbert Hosemann], and I’m going to let him know that it hasn’t been done. I do believe he will do it.”
Senator Frazier also wanted to be clear about the importance of what his legislature did in March of 1995:
“I’m glad we finally made that step in Mississippi….I’m glad we finally did that, even though we were a bit late. Better late than never. And I’m quite sure that the Secretary of State will take the final step; I’m going to talk to him this week, to make sure that he’s alerted, that he knows what has to be done, and that it’s done.”
Mississippi. One less ghost to wrestle in its very near future. We are all appreciative of legislators such as Senator Hillman Frazier. And it is only fitting that today we should read and reflect on the words of Dr. King:
“…..Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”