soldier with rifle american civil warThe Supreme Court
Wall Of Shame

Williams v. Mississippi
(1898) 170 U.S. 213



Williams was indicted for murder by a grand jury composed entirely of white men. He moved in state court to quash the indictment on the ground that the jury members were chosen from the voting roles and that African-Americans had been systemically excluded from the roles by the laws of Mississippi which placed discretion as to who could vote or note vote in the hands of a "elector" and the elector routinely refused to put Africans on the roles. Therefore, Williams argued, the indictment was not the product of a decision of his peers. The motion was denied and Williams was tried by a jury composed entirely of white men and convicted. Williams appealed his conviction to the United States Supreme Court.

Issue to be Decided

Has the laws of Mississippi operated in an unconstitutional manner toward Williams?



Williams does not argue that either the constitution of Mississippi or its laws discriminate against the negro race, either as to the elective franchise or the privilege or duty of sitting on juries. The fact of discrimination, Williams says, arises from the manner in which certain administrative officers exercise the powers granted to them by the constitution and laws.

"The court readily sees the scheme. If the applicant swears, as he must do, that he is not disqualified from voting, then he must be able to read a section of the constitution and answer questions which satisfy the elector that he understands what he has read. Now this procedure vest full power in the elector to ask all sorts of vain, impertinent questions, and it is with this officer to say whether the questions relate to applicant's right to vote. This officer can reject whomsoever he chooses, and register whomsoever he chooses, for he is vested by the constitution with that power. Under Mississippi law it is left to the elector to determine whether the applicant reads, understands or interprets the section of the constitution designated. The elector is the sole judge of the examination of the applicant, and the elector can refuse him registration."

To make the possible dereliction of the elector the dereliction of the constitution and laws, Williams points to a decision of the Mississippi Supreme Court which reads:

"The constitutional convention swept the field of expedients, to obstruct the exercise of suffrage by the negro race. By reason of its previous condition of servitude, this race had acquired certain peculiarities of habit, of temperament, and of character, which clearly distinquishes it as a race from the whites. A patient, docile people; but careless, landless, migratory within narrow limits, without forethought; and its criminal members given to furtive offences, rather than the robust crimes of the whites. Restrained by the Federal Constitution from discriminating against the negro race, the convention discriminates againsts its characteristics, and the offences to which its criminal members are prone."


"But nothing tangible can be deduced from this. If weakness were to be taken advantage of, it was to be done `within the field of permissible action under the limitations imposed by the Federal Constitution.,' and the means of it were the alleged characteristics of the negro race, not the administration of the law by officers of the state."

Note: Let's see if we understand this: imperfect administration of the law is not grounds upon which the Supreme Court can rule a State is in fact discriminating against the African unlawfully? There was no showing that the electors refused to enroll an African who the evidence shows objectively understood what he was reading? That there is no connection shown between the electors' decisions who to reenroll and who to exclude and the make up of the jury that convicted Williams?


"It cannot be said, therefore, that the denial of the equal protection of the laws arises primarily from the constitution and laws of Mississippi, nor is there any sufficient allegation of an evil and discriminating administration of them. The only allegation is, `by granting a discretion to the said officers, the use of which leads to the abridgment of the elective franchise of the colored voters [of Mississippi], that such citizens are denied the right to be selected as jurors, and this denial is on account of race and this is the intent of the Mississippi constitution.'"

"It will be observed that there is nothing direct and definite in this allegation as affecting the proceedings against Williams. There is no charge against the officers to whom is submitted the selection of the juries. There is an allegation of the purpose of the convention that drew the constitution, to disfranchise citizens of the colored race, but with this we have no concern, unless the purpose is executed by the constitution or laws or by those who administer them. If it is done in the latter way, how or by what means should be shown. But, according to the Mississippi Supreme Court jurors are not selected from or with reference to any lists furnished by such election officers."

Note: Apparently, the Supreme Court is saying, there is shown by Williams no connection between the fact the electors' exercise of discretion routinely excluded Africans from the voter rolls and the fact that no Africans were among the pool of jurors from which Williams all white jury was constructed.


"In Yick Wo v. Hopkins , we were obliged to reason from the probable to the actual, and pass upon the validity of laws complained of as tried merely by the opportunities which their terms afford of unequal and unjust discrimination in their administration. For the ases present the laws in actual operation, and the facts shown establish an administration directed so exclusively against a particular class of persons as to warrant and require the conclusion that, whatever may have been the intent of the law as adopted, they are applied by the public authorities charged with their administration with a mind so unequal and oppressive as to amount to a practical denial by the State of that equal protection of the laws which is secured to [everyone]. But this reasoning is not applicable to the constitution of Mississippi and its laws. They do not on their face discriminate between the races, and it has not been shown that their actual administration was evil, only that evil was possible under them."

Joe Ryan