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8.11.5 Mississippi Black Code

The Mississippi legislature passed the Black Codes right after the Civil War ended in an attempt to formalize a racial hierarchy in which whites could restrict the freedoms of black laborers.

Mississippi Legislature

Voices of Freedom: A Documentary History, Second Edition, Volume 1, Edited by Eric Foner, 319-323

In addition to violence, white Southerners who would not accept equality for Black citizens created state laws to discriminate against them. These became known as “Black Codes,” and white legislators put them in place in 1865 and 1866. Black Codes, like these from Mississippi, were meant to keep newly freed men, women, and children in a condition similar to slavery. What do you notice about these different Mississippi laws? What happened to adults who did not have jobs? Why do you think this law kept Black people from carrying guns or knives? What could happen to a Black person who was found guilty of one of the crimes created in the Black code? Why might a white person in Mississippi want to pay the fine for their Black neighbor?

White Southerners enacted Black Codes throughout the South immediately following the war. These were based on laws that preceded the Civil War that regulated and restricted free Black people. In addition to the offenses listed above, the Mississippi Black Code also made illegal “insulting gestures, language” and “exercising the function of a minister of the Gospel without a license from some regularly organized church.” Either of these acts, as well as many others, could lead to convictions that placed the Black Mississippian in the hands of a white neighbor who could claim rights to his labor for a period of time after paying the court fine. A major purpose of these laws was to create conditions that allowed white landowners to continue tapping into the labor of African Americans. Meanwhile, the Mississippi Black Code did provide some new rights, such as the right to legally marry and own property. But these laws did not allow a Black resident to testify against white residents, or serve on a jury or in the state militia. The Mississippi Black Code was passed by a state legislature allowed to reconvene under President Johnson’s reconstruction plans. No Black Mississippian was allowed to vote to create the new state legislature, and former Confederate leaders in the state were able to continue in office. While these early state governments formed with President Johnson’s blessing were largely discredited by Republican Congressmen in the coming years, these discriminatory laws continued to have power where federal officials did not have the reach to protect against them. The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 made these Black Codes illegal; segregation laws would later take their place and continue to create second-class conditions for Black Americans.

Vagrant Law
Sec. 2... All freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes in this State, over the age of eighteen years...with no lawful employment or business, or found unlawfully assembling themselves together...shall be deemed vagrants, and on conviction...shall be fined...and imprisoned at the discretion of the court...
Certain Offense of Freedmen
Sec. 1...That no Freedmen, free negro or mulatto, not in the military service of the United States government, and not licensed so to do by the board of police of his or her county, shall keep or carry firearms of any kind, or any ammunition, dirk or bowie knife...
Sec. 5...If any Freedmen, free negro, or mulatto, convicted of any of the misdemeanors provided against in this act, shall fail or refuse for the space of five days, after conviction, to pay the fine and costs imposed, such person shall be hired out by the sheriff or other any white person who will pay said fine...