Illegal Disenfranchisement

Unlawful attempts to discourage African Americans from exercising their new voting rights began almost immediately after the Civil War. They increased dramatically when Reconstruction ended in the South in 1877.


Election fraud aimed at suppressing the African American vote took three main forms:

  • Discarding non-Democratic (Republican or Black) votes,
  • Counting votes for Republicans as votes for Democrats, and
  • Stuffing ballot boxes with fake ballots.

Because the Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Reese (1875) threw out key Enforcement Act provisions for federal prosecution of local officials who practiced election fraud, there were few options for fighting election fraud.  Election fraud was still illegal, but state and local governments in the South seldom pursued cases of fraud concerning African American votes.

Violence and Intimidation

Violence and intimidation were often used to keep African Americans from the ballot box.

Some episodes of violence and intimidation were spontaneous and local. Other efforts were more far-reaching.  

White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the Knights of the White Camellia, and the White Brotherhood targeted not only Black voters, but also Black schools and churches. They also attacked white people who supported civil rights for African Americans. Their techniques included threats, vandalism and destruction of property, physical attacks, assassinations and lynching.

The Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Cruikshank (1875) made it difficult to prosecute cases of violence against African American voters on the federal level. The decision stated that the “right to participate in state politics was derived from the states,” and that the federal government would not get involved.  

As in the case of election fraud, many state and local officials in the South chose not to enforce laws protecting African Americans from violence and intimidation.  In a 1946 radio campaign, Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi called upon "every red-blooded Anglo-Saxon man in Mississippi to resort to any means” to keep African Americans from the polls.