Monday, September 10, 2012

Political Disenfranchisement Southern-style

White Protective Associations

  • Traditionalists, such as the Dunning School, argued that white protective associations arose in response to the tragedy of "Negro rule."
  • The most significant groups were the Knights of the White Camelia and Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. They arose shortly after the end of the war, and quickly turned into a paramilitary force that served the interests of Democrats, planters, and white supremacy. They often focused their attacks on leaders of the African American community, and involved members of all classes of white society.
  • The goals were to exercise complete authority and control over blacks in their midst, to enforce white supremacy, to destroy the Republican party in the South, and to exercise home rule.
  • Their primary methods included intimidation and violence. In many ways the followed the pattern of guerilla warfare common in the western theater of the war, as well as drawing on the larger American vigilante tradition. Thus, they were often well-informed in the tactics of intimidation and violence.
  • These groups were larger in the popular imagination, both then and now, than in actual numbers. Indeed, much of their effectiveness came from their overall mental effect.
  • Throughout the South, violence was used to keep blacks tied to land or deprive them of their rights. In the Midwest and North, violence was used to simply keep them out. Thus, similar means were used for different ends.

Enforcement Acts

  • Federal legislation was passed to curb terrorist violence in the South. White terrorist groups were seen as threats to national sovereignty.
  • Enforcement Acts made it illegal to prevent the exercise of the franchise on the basis of race, and the President was authorized to have agents bring cases into the federal courts.
  • The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 made the crimes of individual vigilantes subject to federal law (and federal attorneys and courts). Thus, federal and not just state power reached the individual.
  • These acts were called the "Force Acts" by white southerners, who saw the acts as political manipulation of power by Republicans, designed to further oppress the vanquished South. They saw it as a violation of home rule.
  • Under the acts some Klansmen were indicted and convicted, but only a tiny percentage of those who actually committed crimes.

The fall of the Republican South

  • The commonly accepted date for the end of Reconstruction is 1877, for that is when Rutherford B. Hayes took office. He had promised to remove troops from the South and offered federal subsidies for internal improvements, all as part of the compromise that allowed him to become president.
  • As support for Reconstruction waned in the North, southern whites found that they did have some means at their disposal to control their society. Their principal tool was the vote.
  • Almost immediately, the Democrats took office in all but a few states.
  • What was needed was for almost complete control by whites in order to ensure Democratic victory. They began the process of disenfranchisement.
  • Disenfranchisement was a way of emasculating African American men and took the place of slavery as a means to differentiate between the status of black and white men.
  • At the same time that southern communities found ways to delimit black access to the polls, they enlarged the opportunity for yeoman and landless whites. Consequently, white men had greater access to the political process than they had before the war.
  • In effect, whites were able to regain the political position that they had lost during and after the war.


  • Achieved through three principal means: 1) violence and intimidation -- white protective associations attacked black political leaders and kept blacks from voting; 2) deception -- moving polling place, changing dates of voting, closing polls early, etc.; 3) edict (rare until late 19th c.) -- gerrymandering of districts, reapportionment of voters
  • Blacks retained the right to vote well beyond the formal end of Reconstruction, despite white efforts to limit their political participation. By 1880, there were still no laws specifically keeping blacks from the polls.
  • Once blacks were removed from political office, which preceded their loss of the franchise, the white community began to split along class lines.

Agricultural Depression and the Populist Moment

  • Drought, the boll weevil, and economic depression hit the South in the 1880s and 1890s, devastating farmers, particularly those on small to moderate sized farms. A number of organizations, including the Grange and the Farmers Alliance, arose to help farmers cope with the depression.
  • By 1889, the Southern Farmers Alliance had branches in every southern state. The SFA did not admit blacks, but they helped create the Colored Farmers National Alliance and Cooperative Union in 1886, which had similar goals.
  • During the last two decades of the 19th c., white and black farmers drifted closer together due to common economic interests, and white solidarity was harder to maintain.
  • In 1892, the People's Party (a.k.a. Populists), worked to capitalize on the black vote, which had begun to be limited by legal restrictions in many southern states. However, by 1892, only one state (Mississippi) had enacted stringent legal restrictions to black voting, so blacks still had significant political power. The Populists were most successful in North Carolina in merging the interests of black and white farmers. They assumed power and immediately began removing restrictions to blacks voting.
  • Blacks thus become an important swing constituency in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Prior to disenfranchisement, most whites had a common goal -- to rid themselves of Republicanism. When Democrats regained control throughout the South, other issues began to divide them, and the various classes among whites did not have the same interests.
  • The "Populist moment" was a brief moment of opportunity for blacks and poor whites to create an interracial alliance.
  • Democrats undermined the fledgling interracial, class-based alliance of farmers by an explicit appeal to race. Some of the most virulent race-baiting in American politics came in the 1890s South, as Democrats sought to turn poor whites against blacks and Populists and retain them in the Democratic fold. Their methods, however distasteful, were extremely effective at destroying the political power of both Populists and blacks.

Legal Disenfranchisement

  • By the 1890s, Democrats held power in virtually all southern states and had learned their lesson. They had to remove the threat of Populism, and an interracial alliance of farmers, before it spread to urban whites. Their most effective means of resistance was to codify efforts to disenfranchise blacks.
  • The most common methods of disenfranchisement were the poll tax (aimed at reducing poor voters), literacy requirements and understanding clauses (again targeting the poor, but also a subjective means of weeding out undesirable voters), and grandfather clauses (which specifically appealed to whites).
  • Disenfranchisement laws were put in place where the proportion of black residents was the highest: Mississippi (1886), South Carolina (1895), Louisiana (1898). By 1910, restrictive legislation was in place in every southern state. The impact of the law in just one state, Louisiana, is represented in Table 1, below.
  • It represented a victory for Democratic political interests, and effectively made the South a one-party region, particularly with the defeat of the Populists.
  • Racial politics took a significant voting group out of political life, which resulted in a shift to the political right and an era of marked political conservatism. The conservative mood weakened the prospects of progressive legislation; Progressives made their biggest gains in the industrial North in the early 20th c.
  • Racial politics hindered the South's development because it maintained the position of the elites and took away a natural economic ally of poorer whites.
  • By the turn of the 20th century, white supremacy was firmly in place by law and social custom. There were 214 lynchings in the first two years of the 20th c., and no one was punished for any of them.
  • The goal of the white protective associations had been to assert white supremacy. By 1900, the law, the courts, the schools, and almost every institution in the South favored whites. White supremacy was in place.

[source: Lecture Notes, University of Notre Dame]

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