State 125

Constitution of 1895 stripped blacks, poor whites of vote, still rules SC 120 years later

By

A prominent statute on the SC State House grounds honors white supremacist former Gov and US Sen Ben Tillman, the father of the SC Constitution of 1895.
A prominent statute on the SC State House grounds honors white supremacist former Gov and US Sen Ben Tillman, the father of the SC Constitution of 1895.

The crowning achievement of Ben Tillman’s reign of terror on South Carolina was the Constitution of 1895. Although it mostly continued the pattern established in the previous two centuries, it was a dramatic departure from the Reconstruction Constitution of 1868, which had allowed all men to vote, even African-Americans, even white men who didn’t own property.

The goal of the Tillman constitution was to keep the majority-black population from voting and, failing that, to make sure black voters couldn’t accomplish anything.

Read other articles in The State @125 series

The former was achieved via Jim Crow laws, with segregated schools and voting restrictions. Mr. Tillman claimed to be a man of the people, railing against Lowcountry aristocrats and the University of South Carolina, which he saw as educating rich, sissy boys, yet the poll tax and property and literacy requirements that shut out blacks also kept poor whites from voting.

The latter was achieved by making the governor a figurehead and enshrining the General Assembly as the dominant organ of government, to serve as the private club of those who owned and ran things, the defender of the status quo.

Don’t remove Tillman statue; take down Tillman Constitution

The Tillman Constitution has been amended extensively in the past 120 years, and the Legislature has significantly increased gubernatorial authority (relatively speaking), but the basic framework remains. South Carolina remains the Legislative State, where governors, attorneys general, education superintendents, mayors, county councils and even Supreme Court justices know that, practically speaking, their authority extends only so far as legislators are willing to allow.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

  Comments