Disfranchisement after the Reconstruction Era
Disfranchisement after the Reconstruction Era deals with the efforts made by a number of Southern states in the United States to prevent its black citizens from registering to vote despite the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1870, which was intended to protect the suffrage of freedmen after the American Civil War.
From 1890 to 1910, Southern states passed new constitutions, constitutional amendments and laws that made voter registration and voting more difficult, achieving the desired result of disfranchising most black voters, as well as many poor white ones. Congressional seats continued to be apportioned based on total population, giving the white Democrats elected from the one-party region outsize power disproportionate to their voter base.
- 1 Background
- 2 Post-Reconstruction disfranchisement
- 3 State disfranchising constitutions, 1890-1908
- 4 Black and white disfranchisement
- 5 White primary
- 6 Congressional response
- 7 20th-century Supreme Court decisions
- 8 Civil rights movement
- 9 See also
- 10 References
The American Civil War ended in 1865, marking the start of the Reconstruction era in the eleven former Confederate states. Congress refused to re-admit these states back to the Union until they were reconstructed and freedmen's rights to vote safeguarded. In 1866, ten of these states did not provide suffrage and equal civil rights to freedmen. The exception was Tennessee, which had adopted a new constitution in 1865. Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, starting in 1867, establishing military districts to oversee the affairs of these states pending reconstruction.
During the Reconstruction era, blacks constituted absolute majorities of the populations in Mississippi and South Carolina, were equal to the white population in Louisiana, and represented over 40% of the population in four other former Confederate states. Southern whites, fearing black domination, resisted the freedmen's exercise of political power. In 1867, black men voted for the first time. By the 1868 presidential election, Texas, Mississippi, and Virginia had still not been re-admitted to the Union. Radical Republican Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant was elected president thanks to 700,000 black voters. In February 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment came into effect.
White supremacist paramilitary organizations, allied with Southern Democrats, used intimidation, violence and assassinations to repress blacks and prevent them from exercising their civil rights in elections from 1868 until the mid-1870s. The insurgent Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was formed in 1865 in Tennessee (as a backlash to defeat in the war) and quickly became a powerful secret vigilante group, with chapters across the South. The Klan initiated a campaign of intimidation marked by lynchings and other acts of violence directed against blacks and sympathetic whites, including vandalism and destruction of property. Teachers who came from the North to teach freedmen were sometimes attacked or intimidated as well. Under the Force Acts of 1870, the KKK was suppressed by federal prosecution.
More significant were paramilitary organizations that arose in the mid to late 1870s as part of continuing insurgency in the South after the Civil War, as armed veterans in the South began varied forms of resistance to social changes, including preventing black Americans from voting and participating in government affairs. Such groups included the White League, formed in Louisiana in 1874 out of white militias, with chapters forming in other Southern states; the Red Shirts, formed in 1875 in Mississippi but also active in North Carolina and South Carolina; and other "White Liners," such as rifle clubs and the Knights of the White Camellia. Compared to the Klan, they were open societies, better organized, and often solicited newspaper coverage for publicity. The scale of operations was such that in 1876, North Carolina had 20,000 members of rifle clubs. Made up of well-armed Confederate veterans, a class that covered most adult men who could have fought in the war, they worked for political aims: to turn Republicans out of office, disrupt their organizing, and use force to intimidate and terrorize freedmen to keep them from the polls.
Klan murders led Congress to pass laws to end the violence. In 1870, the strongly Republican Congress passed the Enforcement Acts, imposing penalties for conspiracy to deny black suffrage. The Acts empowered the President to deploy the armed forces to suppress organizations that deprived people of rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Organizations whose members appeared in arms were considered in rebellion against the United States. The President could suspend habeas corpus under those circumstances. President Grant used these provisions in parts of the Carolinas in late 1871. United States marshals supervised state voter registrations and elections and could summon the help of military or naval forces if needed. These measures led to the demise of the first Klan by early 1870s. New paramilitary groups unleashed a second wave of violence, resulting in over 1,000 deaths, usually black or Republican. The Supreme Court ruled in 1876 in United States v. Cruikshank that protections of the Fourteenth Amendment, which the Enforcement Acts were intended to support, did not apply to the actions of individuals, but only to the actions of state governments.
The paramilitary insurgent groups, such as the White League, have been described as "the military arm of the Democratic Party." They were instrumental in many Southern states in driving blacks away from the polls and ensuring a white Democratic takeover of legislatures and governorships in most Southern states, most notoriously during the controversial 1876 elections. As a result of a national Compromise of 1877 arising from the 1876 elections, the federal government withdrew its forces from the South, ending the Reconstruction era. By that time, Southern Democrats had effectively regained control in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida – they identified as the Redeemers. In the South, the process has been called "the Redemption". African-American historians sometimes call the Compromise of 1877 "The Great Betrayal."
Following continuing violence around elections as insurgents worked to suppress black voting, the Democratic-dominated Southern states passed legislation to create barriers to voter registrations by blacks and poor whites, starting with the Georgia poll tax in 1877. Other measures followed.
Results could be seen across the South in states such as Tennessee. After Reconstruction, Tennessee initially had the most "consistently competitive political system in the South". A bitter election battle in 1888, marked by unmatched corruption and violence, resulted in white Democrats' taking over the state legislature. To consolidate their power, they worked to suppress the black vote and sharply reduced it through changes in voter registration, including poll taxes, as well as changing election procedures.
In 1890 Mississippi adopted a new constitution, which contained provisions for voter registration which required voters to pass a literacy test and pay poll taxes. The literacy test was subjectively applied, and the two provisions effectively disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites. The constitutional provisions survived a Supreme Court challenge in Williams v. Mississippi (1898).
By 1908, the "Mississippi plan", as it was called, was adopted by other Southern Democratic legislators passing similar constitutions. They created a variety of barriers, including longer residency requirements, rule variations, literacy and understanding tests, which were subjectively applied against minorities, or were particularly hard for the poor to fulfill. Such constitutional provisions were unsuccessfully challenged at the Supreme Court in Giles v. Harris (1903). In practice, these provisions, including white primaries, created a maze that blocked most blacks and many poor whites from voting in Southern states until passage of federal civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s. Voter registration and turnout dropped sharply across the South.
The disfranchisement of a large proportion of voters attracted the attention of Congress, and in 1900 some members proposed stripping the South of seats, related to the number of people who were barred from voting. Apportionment of seats was still based on total population (with the assumption of the usual number of voting males), and white Southerners commanded a number of seats out of proportion to the people they represented. In the end, Congress did not act on this issue, as the Southern bloc of Democrats had sufficient power to reject or stall such action. For decades, white Southern Democrats exercised Congressional representation derived from a full count of the population, but they disfranchised several million black and white citizens. Southern white Democrats comprised a powerful voting bloc in Congress until the mid-20th century. Their representatives, re-elected repeatedly by one-party states, exercised the power of seniority, controlling numerous chairmanships of important committees in both houses. Their power allowed them to have control over rules, budgets and important patronage projects, among other issues, as well as to defeat bills to make lynching a federal crime.
State disfranchising constitutions, 1890-1908
Despite white Southerners' complaints about Reconstruction, several Southern states kept most provisions of their Reconstruction constitutions for more than two decades, until late in the 19th century. In some states, the number of blacks elected to local offices reached a peak in the 1880s although Reconstruction had ended. They had an influence at the local level, although not winning many state seats. Subsequently, state legislatures passed restrictive laws that made voter registration and election rules more complicated. In addition, most legislatures drafted new constitutions.
Florida approved a new constitution in 1885 that included provisions for poll taxes as a prerequisite for voter registration and voting. From 1890 to 1908, ten of the eleven Southern states rewrote their constitutions. All included provisions that restricted voter registration and suffrage, including new requirements for poll taxes, residency, and subjective literacy tests.
With educational improvements, the rate of black illiteracy in the South by 1891 had declined to 58%. The white rate of illiteracy in the South was 31%. Some states used grandfather clauses to exempt white voters from literacy tests. Other states required otherwise eligible black voters to meet literacy and knowledge requirements to the satisfaction of white registrars, who applied subjective measurements and, in the process, rejected most black voters. By 1900, the majority of blacks were literate, but even many of the best-educated of these men continued to "fail" literacy tests administered by white registrars.
The historian J. Morgan Kousser noted, "Within the Democratic party, the chief impetus for restriction came from the black belt members," whom he identified as "always socioeconomically privileged." In addition to wanting to affirm white supremacy, the planter and business elite were concerned about voting by lower-class and uneducated whites. Kousser found, "They disfranchised these whites as willingly as they deprived blacks of the vote." Perman noted the goals of disfranchisement resulted from several factors. Competition between white elites and white lower classes, for example, and a desire to prevent alliances between lower-class white and black Americans, as had been seen in Populist-Republican alliances, both served to motivate voter restrictions.
With the passage of new constitutions, Southern states adopted provisions that caused disfranchisement of large portions of their populations by skirting US constitutional protections of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. While their voter registration requirements applied to all citizens, in practice they disfranchised most blacks and also "would remove [from voter registration rolls] the less educated, less organized, more impoverished whites as well - and that would ensure one-party Democratic rules through most of the 20th century in the South."
For the national Democratic Party, the alignment after Reconstruction resulted in a Southern anchor that was useful for congressional clout, but at the same time inhibited the party from fulfilling center-left initiatives prior to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
As white Democrats regained political power in the South in the 1870s, they worked to suppress black voting. The Red Shirts (Southern United States) and White League intimidated and attacked black voters. Secondly, the Democratic legislatures passed Jim Crow laws to assert white supremacy, establish racial segregation in public facilities, and treat blacks as second-class citizens. The landmark court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) held that "separate but equal" facilities, as on railroad cars, was constitutional. Their new constitutions passed numerous Supreme Court challenges. In cases where a particular restriction was overruled by the Supreme Court in the early 20th century, states quickly devised new methods of excluding most blacks from voting.
Black and white disfranchisement
In Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia (1877), North and South Carolina, Virginia (until 1882 and again from 1902), Texas (1901) and in some northern and western states, proof of payment of taxes (or poll taxes) was a prerequisite to voter registration. Georgia created a cumulative poll tax requirement in 1877: men of any race 21 to 60 years of age had to pay a sum of money for every year from the time they had turned 21, or from the time that the law took effect.
The poll tax requirements applied to whites as well as blacks, and adversely affected poor citizens. Many states required payment of the tax at a time separate from the election, and then required voters to bring receipts with them to the polls. If they could not locate such receipts, they could not vote. In addition, many states surrounded registration and voting with complex record-keeping requirements. These were particularly difficult for sharecropper and tenant farmers to comply with, as they moved frequently.
The poll tax was sometimes used alone or together with a literacy qualification. In a kind of grandfather clause, North Carolina in 1900 exempted from the poll tax those men entitled to vote as of January 1, 1867. This excluded all blacks, who did not then have suffrage.
Educational and character requirements
Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and South Carolina created an educational requirement, with review by a local registrar of a voter's qualifications. In 1898 Georgia rejected such a device.
Alabama delegates at first hesitated, out of concern that illiterate whites would lose their votes. After the legislature stated that the new constitution would not disfranchise any white voters and that it would be submitted to the people for ratification, Alabama passed an educational requirement. It was ratified at the polls in November 1901. Its distinctive feature was the "good character clause" (also known as the "grandfather clause"). An appointment board in each county could register "all voters under the present [previous] law" who were veterans or the lawful descendants of such, and "all who are of good character and understand the duties and obligations of citizenship." This gave the board discretion to approve voters on a case-by-case basis. In practice, they enfranchised whites and rejected blacks, most of whom had been slaves and did not have military service.
South Carolina, Louisiana (1889), and later, Virginia incorporated an educational requirement in their new constitutions. In 1902 Virginia adopted a constitution with the "understanding" clause as a literacy test to use until 1904. In addition, application for registration had to be in the applicant's handwriting and written in the presence of the registrar. Thus, someone who could not write, could not vote.
Eight Box Law
By 1882, the Democrats in South Carolina were firmly in power. Republican voters were contained in the heavily black counties of Beaufort and Georgetown. Because the state had a large black majority, white Democrats still feared a possible resurgence of black voters at the polls. To remove the black threat, the General Assembly created an indirect literacy test, called the "Eight Box Law."
The law required a separate box for each office, and for a voter to insert the ballot into the corresponding box or it would not count. The ballots could not have party symbols on them. They had to be of a correct size and type of paper. Many ballots were arbitrarily rejected because they slightly deviated from the requirements. Ballots could also randomly be rejected if there were more ballots in a box than registered voters.
The multiple-ballot box law was challenged in court. On May 8, 1895, Judge Goff of the United States Circuit Court declared the provision unconstitutional and enjoined the state from taking further action under it. But in June 1895, the US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Judge Goff and dissolved the injunction, leaving the way open for a convention.
The constitutional convention met on September 10 and adjourned on December 4, 1895. By the new constitution, South Carolina adopted the Mississippi Plan until January 1, 1898. Any male citizen could be registered who was able to read a section of the constitution or to satisfy the election officer that he understood it when read to him. Those thus registered were to remain voters for life. Under the new constitution, there was a massive drop in black voters registered: by 1896, in a state where blacks comprised a majority of the population, only 5,500 black voters had succeeded in registering.
Grandfather clauses were used that allowed a man to vote if his grandfather or father had voted prior to January 1, 1867 (neither free people of color, even if property owners, nor freedmen could vote before this date.) The grandfather clause effectively denied all freedmen their right to vote. Free people of color had the vote in North Carolina at one time, but were excluded there and elsewhere after the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831.
Justice Benjamin Curtis's dissent in Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857) had noted that free people of color in numerous states had the right to vote at the time of the Articles of Confederation (as part of the argument about whether people of African descent could ever be citizens of the new United States):
Of this there can be no doubt. At the time of the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, all free native-born inhabitants of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina, though descended from African slaves, were not only citizens of those States, but such of them as had the other necessary qualifications possessed the franchise of electors, on equal terms with other citizens.
North Carolina's constitutional amendment of 1900 exempted from the poll tax those entitled to vote as of January 1, 1867, another type of use of a grandfather clause.
In Guinn v. United States (1915), the Supreme Court invalidated the Oklahoma Constitution's "old soldier" and "grandfather clause" exemptions from literacy tests. In practice, these had disfranchised blacks, as had occurred in numerous Southern states. This decision affected similar provisions in the constitutions of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia election rules. Oklahoma and other states quickly reacted by passing laws that created other rules for voter registration that worked against blacks and minorities. This was the first of many cases in which the NAACP filed a brief.
In Lane v. Wilson (1939), the Supreme Court invalidated an Oklahoma provision designed to disfranchise blacks. It had replaced the clause struck down in Guinn. This clause permanently disfranchised everyone qualified to vote who had not registered to vote in a 12-day window between April 30 and May 11, 1916, except for those who voted in 1914. While designed to be more resistant to challenges based on discrimination, as the law did not specifically mention race, the Court struck it down partially because it relied on the 1914 election, when voters had been discriminated against under the rule invalidated in Guinn.
With a population evenly divided between races, in 1896 there were 130,334 black voters on the registration rolls and about the same number of whites. The constitution created by Louisiana State legislators in 1898 included the "grandfather" clause. The would-be voter must be able to read and write English or his native tongue, or own property assessed at $300 or more. The test for literacy would be made by the voting registrar. Any citizen who was a voter on January 1, 1867, or his son or grandson, or any person naturalized prior to January 1, 1898, if applying for registration before September 1, 1898, might vote, notwithstanding illiteracy or poverty. Separate registration lists were kept for whites and blacks. The constitution of 1898 required a longer term of residence in the state, county, parish, and precinct before voting than did the constitution of 1879.
The effect of these changes on the black population of black voters in Louisiana was devastating; by 1900 black voters were reduced from 130,334 to 5,320 on the rolls. By 1910, only 730 blacks were registered, less than 0.5% of eligible black men. "In 27 of the state's 60 parishes, not a single black voter was registered any longer; in 9 more parishes, only one black voter was."
In 1894, a coalition of Republicans and Populist Party took control of the North Carolina state legislature (and with it, the ability to elect two US Senators) and elected several US Representatives through electoral fusion. The fusion coalition made impressive gains in the 1896 election; their legislative majority expanded, Republican Daniel Lindsay Russell won the gubernatorial race, and the election resulted in more than 1,000 elected or appointed black officials, including US Congressman George Henry White, serving the state.
In response to this loss of power, the Democrats ran on White Supremacy and disfranchisement in the 1898 election, in an attempt to scare white voters away from the Republican/Populist coalition. After a bitter race-baiting campaign led by future US Senator Furnifold McLendel Simmons and Josephus Daniels, editor and publisher of The Raleigh News & Observer, the North Carolina Democrats won the 1898 election and the following 1900 election. They used their power in the state legislature to disfranchise blacks and ensure that Democratic Party and white power would not be threatened again.
After passing laws restricting voter registration, state Democrats adopted a constitutional suffrage amendment in 1900. It lengthened the term of residence before registration and enacted both an educational qualification (to be assessed by a registrar, which meant that it could be subjectively applied) and prepayment of poll tax. It exempted from the poll tax only those entitled to vote as of January 1, 1867, a kind of grandfather clause.
The cumulative effect meant that black voters in North Carolina were completely eliminated from voter rolls during the period from 1896-1904. The growth of their thriving middle class was slowed. In North Carolina and other Southern states, there were also the insidious effects of invisibility: "[W]ithin a decade of disenfranchisement (sic), the white supremacy campaign had erased the image of the black middle class from the minds of white North Carolinians."
In Virginia, Democrats sought disfranchisement in the late 19th century after a coalition of white and black Republicans with populist Democrats had come to power; the coalition had been formalized as the Readjuster Party. The Readjuster Party held control from 1881 to 1883, electing a governor and controlling the legislature, which also elected a US Senator from the state. As in North Carolina, state Democrats were able to divide Readjuster supporters through appeals to White Supremacy. After regaining power, Democrats changed state laws to disfranchise blacks. An 80-year stretch of white Democratic control ended only in the late 1960s after passage of the federal Voting Rights Act and the collapse of the Byrd Organization machine.
About the turn of the 20th century, white members of the Democratic Party in some southern states (minorities were commonly excluded) began to treat the party as a "private club" and insist on white primaries, barring black and other minority voters who managed to get through other barriers. These became common for all elections. As the Democratic Party was dominant, barring voters from the primaries meant they could not stand as or vote for candidates for office. Court challenges overturned the white primary system, but many states passed laws that authorized the use of the white primary. Texas, for instance, passed such a state law in 1923. It was used to bar Mexican Americans as well as black Americans from voting.
Use of "white primaries" in the South and 1900 population of African Americans in those states
|No. of African Americans||% of Population||Year of law or constitution|
|Texas||622,041||20.40||1901 / 1923 laws|
The North had heard the South's version of Reconstruction abuses, such as financial corruption, high taxes, and incompetent freedmen. Industry wanted to invest in the South and not worry about political problems. In addition, reconciliation between white veterans of the North and South reached a peak in the early 20th century. As historian David Blight demonstrated in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, reconciliation meant the pushing aside by whites of the major issues of race and suffrage. Southern whites were effective for many years at having their version of history accepted, especially as it was confirmed in ensuing decades by influential historians of the Dunning School at Columbia University and other institutions.
Disfranchisement of black Americans in the South was covered by national newspapers and magazines as new constitutions were created, and many Northerners were outraged and alarmed. In 1900 as the Committee of Census of Congress considered proposals for adding more seats to the House of Representatives because of increased population, Edgar D. Crumpacker (R-IN) proposed stripping Southern states of seats to reflect the numbers of people they had disfranchised. The Committee and House failed to agree on this proposal. Supporters of black suffrage worked to secure Congressional investigation of disfranchisement, but concerted opposition of the Southern Democratic bloc was aroused, and the efforts failed.
From 1896-1900, the House of Representatives had acted in more than 30 cases to set aside election results from Southern states where the House Elections Committee had concluded that "black voters had been excluded due to fraud, violence, or intimidation." In the late 1890s, however, it began to back off from its enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment and suggested that state and Federal courts should exercise oversight of this issue. The Southern bloc of Democrats exercised increasing power. Southern states clearly had no interest in enforcing voting rights.
In 1904 Congress administered a coup de grâce to efforts to investigate disfranchisement in its decision in the 1904 South Carolina election challenge of Dantzler v. Lever. The House Committee on Elections upheld Lever's victory. It suggested that citizens of South Carolina who felt their rights were denied should take their cases to the state courts, and ultimately, the Supreme Court. Blacks had no recourse through the state courts; because they were disfranchised, they could not serve on juries and whites were clearly aligned against them on this and other racial issues.
Despite the Lever decision, some Congressmen continued to raise the issue of black disfranchisement and malapportionment. For instance, on December 6, 1920, Representative George H. Tinkham from Massachusetts offered a resolution for the Committee of Census to investigate alleged disfranchisement of blacks. His intention was to enforce the provisions of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments.
In addition, he believed there should be reapportionment in the House related to the voting population of southern states, rather than the general population as enumerated in the census. Such reapportionment would reflect reality, so that the South should not get credit for people it had disfranchised. Tinkham detailed how outsized the South's representation was related to its total number of voters:
- States with four representatives:
- Florida, with a total vote of 31,613.
- Colorado, with a total vote of 208,855.
- Maine, with a total vote of 121,836.
- States with six representatives:
- Nebraska, with a total vote of 216,014.
- West Virginia, with a total vote of 211,643.
- South Carolina, given 7 representatives because of its total population (which was majority black), had a total vote of 25,433.
- States with 8 representatives:
- Louisiana, with a total vote of 44,794.
- Kansas, with a total vote of 425,641.
- States with 10 representatives:
- Alabama, with a total vote of 62,345.
- Minnesota, with a total vote of 299,127.
- Iowa, with a total vote of 316,377.
- California, with 11 representatives, had a total vote of 644,790.
- States with 12 representatives:
- Georgia, with a total vote of 59,196.
- New Jersey, with a total vote of 338,461.
- Indiana, with 13 representatives, had a total vote of 565,216.
 He was defeated by the southern bloc.
20th-century Supreme Court decisions
Black Americans and their allies worked hard to regain their ability to exercise the constitutional rights of citizens. Booker T. Washington, widely known for his accommodationist approach as the leader of the Tuskegee Institute, called on northern backers to help finance legal challenges to disfranchisement and segregation. He raised substantial funds and also arranged for representation on some cases, such as the two for Giles in Alabama.
In its ruling in Giles v. Harris (1903), the United States Supreme Court under Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. effectively upheld such southern voter registration provisions in dealing with a challenge to the Alabama constitution. Its decision said the provisions were not targeted at blacks and thus did not deprive them of rights. This has been characterized as the "most momentous ignored decision" in constitutional history.
Trying to deal with the grounds of the Court's ruling, Giles mounted another challenge. In Giles v. Teasley (1904), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Alabama's disfranchising constitution. That same year the Congress refused to overturn a disputed election, and essentially sent plaintiffs back to the state courts. Even when black plaintiffs gained rulings in their favor, states quickly devised alternative ways to exclude them. It was not until later in the 20th century that such legal challenges on disfranchisement began to meet more success in the courts.
With the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, the interracial group based in New York began to provide financial and strategic support to lawsuits on voting issues. What became the NAACP Legal Defense Fund organized and mounted numerous cases in repeated court and legal challenges to the many barriers of segregation, including disfranchisement provisions of the states. The NAACP often represented plaintiffs directly, or helped raise funds to support legal challenges. The NAACP also worked at public education, lobbying of Congress, demonstrations, and encouragement of theater and academic writing. NAACP chapters arose in cities across the country and membership increased rapidly in the South. The American Civil Liberties Union also represented plaintiffs in some disfranchisement cases.
In Smith v. Allwright (1944), the Supreme Court reviewed a Texas case and ruled against the white-only primary, where the state legislature had authorized the Democratic Party to devise its own rules of operation. The 1944 court ruling was that this was unconstitutional, as the state had failed to protect the constitutional rights of its citizens.
Following the 1944 ruling, civil rights organizations in major cities moved quickly to register black voters. For instance, in Georgia, in 1940 only 20,000 blacks had managed to register to vote. After the Supreme Court decision, the All-Citizens Registration Committee (ACRC) of Atlanta started organizing. By 1947 they and others had succeeded in getting 125,000 black Americans registered, 18.8% of those of eligible age.
Each legal victory was followed by white-dominated legislatures' renewed efforts to control black voting through different schemes. In 1958 Georgia passed a new registration act that required those who were illiterate to satisfy "understanding tests" by correctly answering 20 of 30 questions related to citizenship posed by the voting registrar. Despite substantial educational advances among blacks, the individual registrar was the sole person to determine whether individual prospective voters answered correctly. In practice, registrars disqualified most black voters, whether educated or not. In Terrell County, for instance, which was 64% black, after passage of the act, only 48 black Americans were able to register to vote in 1958.
Civil rights movement
The NAACP's steady progress with individual cases was thwarted by southern Democrats' continuing resistance and passage of new statutory barriers to blacks' exercising their franchise. Through the 1950s and 1960s, private citizens enlarged the effort by becoming activists throughout the South, led by many black churches and their leaders, and joined by both young and older activists from northern states. Nonviolent confrontation and demonstrations were mounted in numerous Southern cities, often provoking violent reaction by white bystanders and authorities. The moral crusade of the Civil Rights Movement gained national media coverage, attention across the country, and a growing national demand for change. Widespread violence against the Freedom Riders in 1961, and murders of activists in Alabama in 1963 and Mississippi in 1964 gained support for the activists' cause at the national level. President John F. Kennedy introduced civil rights legislation in 1963 before he was assassinated.
President Lyndon B. Johnson took up the charge. In January 1964, Johnson met with civil rights leaders. On January 8, during his first State of the Union address, Johnson asked Congress to "let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined." On January 23, 1964, the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting the use of poll taxes in national elections, was ratified with the approval of South Dakota, the 38th state to do so.
On June 21, 1964, civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, disappeared in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The three were volunteers aiding in the registration of black voters as part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project. Forty-four days later the Federal Bureau of Investigation recovered their bodies from an earthen dam where they were buried. The Neshoba County deputy sheriff Cecil Price and 16 others, all Ku Klux Klan members, were indicted for the murders; seven were convicted.
When the Civil Rights Bill came before the full Senate for debate on March 30, 1964, the "Southern Bloc" of 18 southern Democratic Senators and one Republican Senator led by Richard Russell (D-GA) launched a filibuster to prevent its passage. Said Russell:
- "We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (Southern) states."
After 57 working days of filibuster, and several compromises, the Senate had enough votes (71 to 29) to end the debate and the filibuster. It was the first time that Southern senators had failed to win with such tactics against civil rights bills. On July 2, President Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act prohibited segregation in public places and barred unequal application of voter registration requirements. It did not abolish literacy tests, which had been used to disqualify blacks and poor white voters.
As the United States Department of Justice stated:
"By 1965 concerted efforts to break the grip of state disenfranchisement (sic) had been under way for some time, but had achieved only modest success overall and in some areas had proved almost entirely ineffectual. The murder of voting-rights activists in Philadelphia, Mississippi, gained national attention, along with numerous other acts of violence and terrorism. Finally, the unprovoked attack on March 7, 1965, by state troopers on peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, en route to the state capitol in Montgomery, persuaded the President and Congress to overcome Southern legislators' resistance to effective voting rights legislation. President Johnson issued a call for a strong voting rights law and hearings began soon thereafter on the bill that would become the Voting Rights Act."
Passed in 1965, this law prohibited the use of literacy tests as a requirement to register to vote. It provided for recourse for local voters to Federal oversight and intervention, plus federal monitoring of areas that historically had low voter turnouts to ensure that new measures were not taken against minority voters, and provision for enforcement of voting rights. African Americans re-entered the formal political process, and have won seats at local, state and federal levels.
- Electoral fraud
- Jim Crow laws
- Nadir of American race relations
- Race legislation in the United States
- Voting rights in the United States
- "Chronology of Emancipation during the Civil War". University of Maryland: Department of History.
- Gabriel J. Chin & Randy Wagner, "The Tyranny of the Minority: Jim Crow and the Counter-Majoritarian Difficulty,"43 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 65 (2008)
- Andrews, E. Benjamin (1912). History of the United States. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
- George C. Rable, But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984, p. 132
- "Key Events in the Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes". American President: A Reference Resource. Miller Center. Retrieved 8 January 2013.
- J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910, p.104
- Richard H. Pildes, "Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon", Constitutional Commentary, Vol.17, 2000, Accessed 10 Mar 2008
- Richard H. Pildes, "Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon", Constitutional Commentary, Vol.17, 2000, p.10, Accessed 10 Mar 2008
- COMMITTEE AT ODDS ON REAPPORTIONMENT, The New York Times, 20 Dec 1900, accessed 10 Mar 2008
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