Following the ratification in 1870 of the 15e Amendment, which prevented states from depriving citizens of the right to vote based on race, southern states began adopting measures such as election taxes, literacy tests, all-white primaries, laws on denial of the right to vote, grandfather clauses, fraud and intimidation to keep African Americans out of the polls.
Focused on maintaining white supremacy in the electoral process, lawmakers used loopholes in the 15e Amendment to implement a series of measures to deprive black voters of their right to vote without explicitly characterizing them on the basis of race.
After more than half a million black men joined the electoral rolls during Reconstruction in the 1870s, helping elect nearly 2,000 black men to public office, Mississippi led the way by using measures to bypass the 15e Amendment. Mississippi’s Jim Crow-era laws then set a precedent for other southern states to use the same tactics to attack black emancipation for nearly a century until voting rights were passed. from 1965.
TIMETABLE: Voting rights in the United States
Mississippi State Convention of 1890
At the Mississippi State Convention of 1890, a new constitution was passed that included a literacy test and a voting tax for eligible voters. Under the new literacy requirement, a potential voter had to be able to read any section of the Mississippi Constitution or understand any section when read to it, or give a reasonable interpretation of any section.
“There is no point in deceiving or lying on the matter,” said James Vardaman in 1890. Vardaman served in the Mississippi legislature at the time of the convention and later became governor of the state. “In Mississippi, we have in our constitution legislated against the racial peculiarities of negroes. . . . When this device breaks down, we will resort to something else. ”
The impact of the legislation has been rapid. In 1910, registered voters among African Americans fell to 15% in Virginia and less than 2% in Alabama and Mississippi, according to historian Donald G. Nieman, in his book Promises to Keep: African Americans and Constitutional Order, 1776 to the Present.
In the 1898 Williams V. Mississippi decision, the United States Supreme Court upheld the state’s voting tax, disqualification clauses, grandfather clause and literacy tests on the grounds that the new constitution did not “Racial discrimination and that their actual administration was not bad: only that evil was possible under them. The Williams decision facilitated the implementation of voter suppression laws in many other southern states, including Louisiana, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, and Georgia.
John B. Knox, a delegate from Alabama to that state’s 1901 convention, revealed the mindset of white legislatures when he said that “the purpose of the convention is to establish white supremacy. in the State, within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution.
While many voting suppression measures can also have an impact on poor whites, they have had a disproportionate impact on African Americans.
1. Literacy tests
Anti-literacy laws in many southern states prohibited slaves from teaching to read. In 1880, according to the United States Bureau of Census, 76% of African Americans in the South were illiterate, a rate 55 percentage points higher than that of whites in the South. In 1900, 50% of black men of voting age could not read, compared to 12% of white men of voting age. These disparities have made literacy tests one of the most effective tools to suppress the African American vote. Poll clerks, who were always white, could also pass or fail a person at their discretion depending on race.
Illiterate whites were often excluded from these literacy tests using grandfather clauses, which tied their voting rights to those of their grandfathers before the Civil War. Former slaves, who did not have the right to vote until the 15the Amendment, obviously could not benefit from this provision. The grandfather clause also applied to election taxes, which was another measure created by the predominantly white southern legislatures to suppress black voting.
2. Voting fees
While southern legislatures claimed that election taxes for voting were designed to increase state revenues, for many white political leaders the main goal was to suppress the African American vote. “This newspaper believes in white supremacy,” said one Tuscaloosa (Alabama) New editorial from 1939, “and he believes that the election tax is one of the essential elements for the preservation of white supremacy”.
Eleven southern states had laws that required citizens to pay a voting tax before they could vote. The taxes, which were $ 1 to $ 2 per year, had a disproportionate impact on registered black voters. In Georgia, which implemented a cumulative election tax in 1877 that required all citizens to repay their taxes before being allowed to vote, the turnout of blacks fell by 50%, according to Morgan Kousser in The Formation of Southern Politics: Restriction of Suffrage and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910.
3. All-White primers
When literacy tests, surveys, grandfather clauses and the many other ways around the 15e The amendment did not work to remove black voter turnout, white lawmakers in several southern states used all-white primaries for all, but to eliminate the presence of black voters in the electoral process.
In Texas, for example, the legislature gave the Democratic Party the power to set its own rules. The party determined it was only for white voters, excluding African Americans from its elections and making local electoral politics dominated by a party that supported the Jim Crow laws.
After a white election official blocked black man Lonnie E. Smith from voting in the 1940 Texas Democratic primary, the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall and William H. Hastie contested the case until the Supreme Court. In 1944, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Smith V. Allwright that the Texas white primary system was unconstitutional.
“The right to vote in a primary for the nomination of candidates without discrimination on the part of the state… is a right guaranteed by the Constitution,” said the court in its 8-1 decision.
The Voting Rights Act 1965
WATCH: Voting Rights Act 1965
Signed in law 95 years after the 15the The amendment was ratified in the Constitution, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned most discriminatory voting practices in southern states, such as literacy tests, election taxes and rights clauses gains that had been designed by southern legislatures to suppress the African-American vote.
Almost as swift as resistance to black voter turnout had been nearly a century earlier, so was the response to this landmark law. Within a year, only four of the 13 southern states had less than 50 percent of registered African-American voters.
Shelby County v. Holder
In 2013, the United States Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act when it ruled in a 5 to 4 vote that constraints on some states and federal review of proceedings state votes were overwhelmed. In the wake of the Shelby County v. Holder decision, several states have enacted laws restricting voter access, including identity requirements, limits on early voting, postal voting and more.