Thursday, December 19, 2013

Pippa Holloway's "Living in Infamy"

Pippa Holloway is Professor of History at Middle Tennessee State University. She is the author of Sexuality, Politics, and Social Control in Virginia, 1920-1945 and editor of Other Souths: Diversity and Difference in the U.S. South, Reconstruction to Present.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Living in Infamy: Felon Disfranchisement and the History of American Citizenship, and reported the following:
It is difficult but not impossible to connect this page to the larger argument of the book. Much of this page ties up loose ends from the chapter by discussing laws that were exceptions to the pattern I identify for the rest of the South.

But one paragraph on this page makes a reference to an important argument of the book: Laws disfranchising for crime in the post-Civil War South initially targeted African Americans as a means to deny the vote to these newly enfranchised citizens, but their scope shifted in the late nineteenth century. Virginia's laws are a good example of this pattern. In 1876 Virginia passed a law disfranchising for misdemeanor thefts, a provision explicitly planned as a way to target black voters. At the time white Virginia Democrats celebrated the law, with one newspaper exclaiming, “What sort of claim to participation in the matter of governing the country has a ‘chicken-thief’? It is an insult to the people entitled to vote that they should march up to the polls with chicken-thieves and sheep-stealers.”

However, by the late 19th century, more states in the South sought to disfranchise both blacks and whites due to the threat to Democratic rule posed by the Populist movement. The idea that all incarcerated individuals were degraded by their punishment and therefore unworthy of suffrage aided the political agenda of limiting suffrage for lower-class whites. Southern states passed laws that disfranchised a much broader segment of the population – all who had been incarcerated for felonies.

Disfranchising poor white men as well as black men who were (or had been) incarcerated had, by the end of the nineteenth century, become increasingly easy to accept. Life-long disfranchisement for all felons became the norm in the whole nation in the twentieth century, bringing us to the situation where we are today in which 5.85 million people across the nation can not vote due to criminal convictions.
Learn more about Living in Infamy at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue