One year before the Wyoming Territory was admitted to the Union, on 30 September 1889 legislators ratified the first state constitution that granted women the right to vote. Eight years after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v the Board of Education, segregationists rioted violently to protest integration of the University of Mississippi.
There was one common denominator on this day, 73 years apart: men. Overwhelmingly, men with White skin. Some with deep-seated prejudices and others with a sense of social justice.
Between 1776 and 1807, all New Jersey inhabitants who owned property worth “50 pounds clear estate” could vote. That included women and free Blacks. On 16 November 1807, each group lost the right to vote when the legislature restricted voting to “free, white, male citizens” who were at least 21 years of age. It was touted as a “progressive” movement.
Jump forward to 1869 and westward to the Wyoming Territory. On 10 December 1869, Governor John Campbell signed the first women’s suffrage act in the country.
According to the Wyoming State Historical Society, the territorial legislature had already passed progressive measures guaranteeing women teachers the same pay as men and granting married women property rights apart from their husbands. Bright’s measure backing universal women’s suffrage, however, would be groundbreaking in the United States.
The following September, 69-year-old Louisa Swain, described by a local newspaper as “a gentle white-haired housewife” became the first women to cast a ballot under the law in her town of Laramie, Wyoming. There was no protest.
Other territories soon granted women the right to vote:
- 1870, Territory of Utah
- 1883, Territory of Washington
- 1887, Territory of Montana
- 1913, Territory of Alaska
Two decades after that historic vote, on 30 September 1889, the Wyoming constitution retained the right for women to vote.
When Congress threatened to keep Wyoming out of the Union if it didn’t rescind the provision, the territory refused to budge. “We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women,” the territorial legislature declared in a telegram to congressional leaders. Congress relented, and Wyoming became the first state to grant women the right to vote when it became the country’s 44th state in 1890.
In many states west of the Mississippi (and two east) White men gave women the vote before the 19th Amendment was ratified.
- 1890, Wyoming
- 1893, Colorado
- 1896, Utah and Idaho
- 1910, Washington
- 1911, California
- 1912, Arizona, Kansas and Oregon
- 1914, Montana and Nevada
- 1917, New York
- 1918, Michigan, Oklahoma and South Dakota
In the 19th century, Southern states fought to retain slavery, with leaders arguing that Black people were inferior to Whites. Despite losing the war and constitutional amendments, southern states rejected equality for Black people even more vociferously than they had for White women.
In 1954, almost a century after the Civil War ended, the US Supreme Court ruled that public school segregation was unconstitutional.
On 30 September 1962, U.S. Marshals successfully escorted the first Black student onto the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford. It was their third attempt.
James H. Meredith, a veteran, had been a student at Jackson State University (a historically Black university). He applied to “Ole Miss” after John F. Kennedy was elected president. The Ole Miss registrar rejected his application after learning he was Black.
Meredith sued. A federal court ordered the University to accept him. Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett blocked his entrance and was found guilty of contempt on 28 September 1962. President Kennedy then federalized 11,000 members of the Mississippi National Guard.
On Sunday evening, 24 marshals escorted Meredith “to his guarded dormitory,” the third attempt to get him on campus. Within an hour, a violent mob of more than 2,000 was in full riot.
Two civilians (not three) were killed, “gunned down in the darkness of the campus.” Paul Guihard, a red-headed reporter for Agence France-Presse, died after being shot in the back. He was the “only reporter killed during the civil rights era,” and his murder remains unsolved.
Also killed: Ray Gunter, “a white jukebox repairman” who died after being shot in the forehead.
More than 165 marshals were injured as well as about 40 soldiers and National Guardsmen.
Most of the attackers, operating in darkness as members of a mob, escaped not only injury but arrest. Marshals and MPs took about 200 prisoners, but most of them were soon released for lack of solid evidence. Of those prisoners, only 24 were Ole Miss students; another score or so were students from other Mississippi colleges and from Southwestern at Memphis College.
Unlike the January 6th, 2020, attack on the US Capitol, where almost 1,000 have been charged, most of those Mississippi criminals were not held responsible. Thank modern communications technology, cell phone cameras and personal egos (all those selfies).
However, that January violence; ongoing and widespread attempts to make it harder to vote; and a pervasive myth that the 2020 presidential election was marked with fraud shows that social justice remains an elusive goal.