African Americans: Illegal and Legal Voter Suppression

(1877-1954)

“[We] are in a majority here, but you may vote until your eyes drop out or your tongue drops out … there’s a hole gets in the bottom of the boxes some way and lets out our votes.”
— African American man from Georgia, 18831

 

The years between 1877 and 1954 were marked by systematic efforts to keep African Americans from voting, especially in the South. Several court rulings gave the responsibility to protect voting rights to the states. Many states did not enforce these rights for African Americans and actively, often violently, kept Black voters from the polls.

Both legal and illegal efforts to keep African Americans from voting worked. Black voter turnout in the South plummeted from an estimated 60-85% during Reconstruction to less than 10% in the early 1900s. But behind the scenes, efforts were underway that would pave the way for civil rights efforts in the 1950s and 1960s.

 

Setting the Stage

This time period was marked by Jim Crow Laws and “separate but equal” treatment of African Americans in the United States. This meant that African Americans were told that they could have access to things such as transportation (like trains and buses) but they were forced and bullied into sitting in designated areas, in the back, or having to give up their seats if there weren’t enough for all the white folks present. This also meant the enforcement of separate water fountains, playgrounds, and other public facilities for “blacks only.” So while African Americans were allowed to more freely move about public spaces, it was clear that they really were not free and could not have access to equitable or the same facilities as their white counterparts.

Illegal Voter Suppression

Unlawful attempts to discourage African Americans from exercising their new voting rights began almost immediately after the Civil War. They increased dramatically when Reconstruction [LINK TO RECONSTRUCTION] ended in the South in 1876.

Fraud

Election fraud [POSSIBLE LINK TO TOOLS OF OPPRESSION] aimed at suppressing the African American vote took three main forms:

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

Because the Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Reese (1875) [link to Fed Law] threw out key provisions of the Enforcement Acts Three bills passed in 1870 and 1871 that created criminal laws in an attempt to protect specific African American rights such as voting and holding office [link to Fed Law] 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, 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) [link Fed Law] 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 hundreds of Negroes from the polls."

Legal Voter Suppression

Three historic actions set the stage for legally disenfranchising African American voters:  

  1. The end of Reconstruction with the Hayes-Tilden Compromise2 removed federal troops from the Confederate states in 1877. This meant Black voters had to depend on states and the local police for support, which was seldom given, and these  voters were exposed to potential violence.
  2. The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v. Cruikshank in 1875 [link Fed Law] stated that the 14th Amendment [link Fed Law] applied only to state action, not to individual action. This required disenfranchised voters to seek remedies in state courts under state laws, not in federal courts.
  3. The Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Reese in 1876 allowed states to create legal barriers to voting that applied to all voters (like poll taxes and grandfather clauses), but disproportionately affected the Black community [link to tools of suppression]

Between 1890 and 1908, 10 of the 11 former Confederate states ratified constitutions or amendments that made voter registration and voting more difficult for African Americans.

Poll Taxes

Poll taxes required voters to pay a fee in order to vote. Georgia began using poll taxes to limit African American voting in 1871. The taxes were generally $1-2 per year, which would be $20-40 today — more than most black sharecroppers could pay. This was also used against poor white sharecroppers [link to Voting & Social Class].

In 1877, Georgia created cumulative poll taxes that required potential voters to pay back taxes for all years when they could have voted but did not. In 1902, Virginia adopted a constitutional requirement that any voter who wanted to vote in 1904 had to prove that he had paid the $1.50 (about $40 today) poll tax in each of the preceding years he was eligible to vote. By 1904, every former Confederate state had adopted some form of poll tax to limit access to the polls for African Americans.

The poll tax was an effective tool of voter suppression. Estimates suggest that the Georgia poll tax reduced overall turnout by 16-28%, and African American turnout by about 50%. Texas adopted the poll tax in 1903, reducing the number of Black voters in the state from about 100,000 in the 1890s to 5,000 in 1906.

Poll taxes connected to voting were not prohibited until passage of the 24th Amendment [link to Fed Law] in 1964.

Literacy Tests

Literacy tests for voting targeted African American voters in the South [link Immigrations & Voting]. This was an effective tactic for limiting the black vote, since approximately 40-60% of the African American population in the South in the late 19th century could not read.

Some literacy tests were implicit, meaning a voter had to be able to read instructions and the ballot on their own, without help, in order to vote. This barrier eliminated the votes of people who could not read by making the voting process impossible for them. Secret ballot election An election where no one knows who has voted for which candidate were another implicit literacy test, since voters who could not read were not allowed to ask others for help with completing the ballot.

Explicit literacy tests required people to demonstrate an ability to read before voting. For example, in Mississippi, a voter could be asked to read a section of the state Constitution and explain it. Black voters received difficult or technical sections while white voters might be asked to read only one line. Some officials asked questions that tested prior knowledge of the constitution rather than the ability to read and understand English. Local voting officials determined who took which version of the tests, as well as who passed or failed.

Literacy tests were often accompanied by a “grandfather” clause [link barriers to voting] that protected most whites from the effect of the law. These clauses excused anyone who had been able to vote before the adoption of the 14th or 15th Amendments (white males), or any descendant of that person, from taking the literacy test.

Literacy tests for voting were finally prohibited by provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 [link Fed Law].

Restrictive Voter Registration

Southern states kept African Americans from the polls by making voter registration for them difficult. Voter registration laws required frequent re-registration, long-term residency, registration at inconvenient times (e.g., planting season, during work hours, etc.) and burdensome paperwork.

Appointment boards in each county could register voters who were veterans or descendants of earlier voters (white males). Boards could approve voters on a case-by-case Taking every case individually, meaning that no judgment can be made for a whole group of people basis. In practice, they enfranchised whites and rejected Blacks.

White-only Primaries

White-only primary elections were another method used to disenfranchise Black voters. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Democratic Party dominated southern politics. The only competitive voting was in the primaries, so excluding African American voters from primaries was an efficient way to disenfranchise them.

By the 1920s, political party rules that excluded Black people and other minorities from participating in party primaries were the norm throughout the South. Challenges to white-only primaries were met by arguments that general elections were the only state-mandated elections, while parties themselves could conduct their own primaries.

Texas’ infamous white primary system ended after the 1944 Smith v. Allwright [fed law link] Supreme Court decision ruled that white primaries as established by Texas were unconstitutional. Most other southern states ended their white primaries after this decision, but kept other laws aimed at keeping African Americans from the polls.

Intersectionality

Imagine that you are given the right to vote but you are told that in order to do so, you need to be able to complete a series of tests that you have never been given the opportunity to study for. Because of the limitations on your rights, you did not have access to education, probably were never taught (at least legally) how to read, and you do not have documents because you and your family were slaves. Does this mean you have any less knowledge of the world you’re a part of? Does this mean that you then have nothing to contribute to make your community/state/nation better? If you cannot imagine these kinds of experiences or have never faced them, this is probably because you have the privilege of being educated, literate, and in this time, white. Being aware of your privilege, your positionality Your “position” in social structures based on identities such as race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc., is important then to be able to be aware and understand the experiences of those with less privilege, especially those of marginalized intersectional identities (being non-white, a woman, LGBTQ, of a particular socioeconomic class, etc.).

Discussion Questions: 
Why do you think whites did not want Black people to vote?
What do you think it means that there were legal forms of disenfranchisement that were supported by the government?
What barriers to voting and participating in government do African Americans still face today?