Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Brief History of African American Voter Disenfranchisement

From the African American Experience's Jim Crow Encyclopedia,  "Disenfranchisement," by Sherita L. Johnson  --  Depriving African Americans the right to vote, or disenfranchisement, was a significant feature of Jim Crow politics for almost a century. It began in the late nineteenth century as a means to curtail the political advantages African Americans had gained during Reconstruction. After the Civil War, three constitutional amendments were ratified to ease the transition from slavery to freedom: the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment granted former slaves the right to citizenship, and the Fifteenth Amendment granted black men the right to vote. These three Reconstruction amendments were contested by the former Confederate states because African Americans were no longer under whites' control. This period of relative freedom and equality lasted for about a decade, until Southern states repealed all the Reconstruction Acts created by radical Republicans, the party once headed by Abraham Lincoln. By the mid-1870s, the Democratic Party had regained much of their former congressional power with the support of a new administration. White Southerners sought redemption for the loss of the Civil War, and their most pressing concern was, as one historian puts it, a “struggle for mastery” once again over African Americans.

In a move to return to the white supremacy status quo, disenfranchisement was a political process that took only a few decades to accomplish. The history of black suffrage began when the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870. Only a small percentage of free blacks, primarily in the North, had voting privileges prior to then. During Reconstruction, African Americans took full advantage of their voting rights by supporting Republican officials, particularly electing other blacks to office. High-ranking black Republicans during this period included state legislators, governors, and U.S. senators. Congressmen Robert Smalls from South Carolina and John Lynch from Mississippi as well as Louisiana Governor P.B.S. Pinchback were among the many black politicians elected by black voters during the 1870s and early 1880s. Such victories were short-lived, as white Southerners began manipulating the elections in various ways. Black voters were often verbally harassed or physically assaulted to prevent them from casting their ballots or even reaching the polls. Violent threats and terror campaigns for voter intimidation usually occurred without legal intervention.

Some African Americans would refuse to be intimidated despite such warnings. If they did succeed at casting their votes, however, white election officials often destroyed these ballots. Black voters were usually unaware that their votes were not counted under such conditions. “Ballot box stuffing” was yet another deceptive tactic used to disenfranchise African Americans. This practice of “counting out” the intended votes of African Americans for an opposing candidate or using phony ballots against the candidate supported by a black majority were ways of “stealing” the vote. This second phase in the history of black suffrage was an age of “Redemption,” when white Southerners schemed to regain political control of once Republican-dominated governments.

White Democrats were determined to find other ways of effectively disenfranchising blacks that would prevent them from even registering to vote. They drew a fine distinction between having “the ability to vote at elections” and “the right to vote” at all. The latter option was a more permanent solution to the “race problem” attributed in part to black suffrage. All the political, social, and economic advancements African Americans had made in just a few years since slavery antagonized white supremacist ideas about natural social order. The rallying cry of “Negro domination” signaled the fears of white Southerners in regard to the power wielded by the black vote in support of the Republican Party. African Americans were never in control as white Southerners imagined, because segregation laws upheld white hegemony. Blacks were deemed social inferiors with little or no civil rights to protect. Yet, the idea of blacks ruling whites inspired a revolution. The specter of “Negro domination” could only be replaced by another political obsession, “white supremacy.” Complete disenfranchisement resolved the ideological conflict of race by restoring white supremacy.

1959 Poll Tax Receipt

By the 1890s, Southern states began to deprive African Americans of their voting rights by creating stringent voting restrictions. Property qualifications were required in Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina; the registered voter had to own as much as $300 or more in real estate or personal assets. Poll taxes were imposed in Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida, Texas, and several other states with property qualifications. A third common voting restriction was an education qualification. Literacy tests were administered to prove if a potential voter was capable of understanding his rights. Often these tests included reading and interpreting passages from the U.S. Constitution. Sometimes the election officials would read an article or constitutional amendment and ask the applicant to explain the passages. Such practices were common in Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia. Not all of the voting restrictions were effective in just eliminating black voters, but some whites could also be disenfranchised too. Therefore, “saving clauses” were often included in voting restriction proposals as loopholes for whites who would be otherwise disqualified by property, poll tax, and educational qualifications. The “grandfather clause” was intended as a nonracial requirement that nevertheless limited black suffrage; it stipulated that any son or descendent of a (Confederate) soldier or any one who had the right to vote prior to 1867 would then inherit his ancestral voting rights. This law of inheritance did not always prevent African Americans from voting, considering the documented participation of black soldiers in both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. Nevertheless, the grandfather clause did eliminate a majority of black voters who were themselves descended from former slaves. Some African Americans just faltered under considerable pressures of disenfranchisement. They would not vote at all or would sell their votes altogether. These two forms are not technically forms of disenfranchisement, since the individual was not prevented from voting but instead chose not to do so. However, the employment qualification and character assessments were two notorious forms of voting restrictions found in Alabama. The black voter would have to prove that he had suitable employment and then that he was of “good character.” Both qualifications were judged by a white election official and therefore subject to his discretion.

African Americans responded to the motives and means of disenfranchisement with their actions and words. In record numbers, they continued to vote despite the fraudulent election schemes. Less educated blacks would sometimes be accompanied to the polls by others to insure a fair chance at voting. Most African Americans believed that voting was a basic right of U.S. citizenship and were determined to maintain their civil rights at all costs, even to their personal safety. Writer Charles Chesnutt participated in the public debates about the second-class citizenship status being forced on African Americans. In his article, “The Disenfranchisement of the Negro” (1903), Chesnutt challenged the constitutionality of the various voting restrictions imposed in Southern states. He therefore criticized the federal government for being influenced by white Southerners: “Not only is the Negro taxed without representation in the [South], but he pays, through the tariff and internal revenue, a tax to a National government whose supreme judicial tribunal declares that it cannot, through the executive arm, enforce its own decrees, and, therefore, refuses to pass upon a question, squarely before it, involving a basic right of citizenship” (92). Chesnutt believed that the federal government could have taken action by using congressional regulations, under the Fourteenth Amendment, to prevent Southerners from “a district where voters [had] been disfranchised” from ever holding office. Thus, white Southerners' political power would be just as limited as disenfranchised African Americans. The black press also responded to voter manipulation by castigating the perpetrators. The Richmond Planet and Southwestern Christian Advocate (a Methodist paper in New Orleans), for example, featured editorials about black disenfranchisement that was occurring throughout the South. Between 1902 and 1905, the Baltimore Afro-American Ledger led a series of campaigns against the move to segregate public transportation, as an additional consequence of disenfranchisement. It circulated few successful petitions and organized boycotts that would allow blacks to retain at least an illusion of political power.

"One Less Negro Vote" -- The Richmond Whip

“Restoration,” or the third phase in the history of black suffrage, was completed by the early twentieth century. The black vote was eliminated by amendments to state constitutions. Southern states held conventions to revise their suffrage requirements that could circumvent federal election laws. The Democrats secured their political power through voting manipulation and intimidation. They had also manipulated public opinion against black suffrage as a challenge to white supremacy. Only when organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) began to take action did white supremacists lose some footing. By the 1930s and 1940s, organized by the NAACP, black voter registration drives once again appeared as the modern Civil Rights Movement began to take shape. Medgar Evers and other activists challenged the election of racist demagogues in Mississippi and Georgia. It was the black vote that secured the presidential election of Harry S. Truman in 1948. As evidenced in Truman's administration, civil rights legislation was reintroduced to the national public. African Americans staged massive protests against racial discrimination and segregation throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Militant opposition to racial oppression and support of voting rights was signaled by Malcolm X's speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” (1964) to a gathering in Cleveland. Black disenfranchisement, one of the last vestiges of Jim Crow, would finally be overturned by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 when federal authorities would regulate voter registration and blacks could free access to the ballot. See alsoBlack Codes; Nadir of the Negro; Williams v. Mississippi.  (source: African American Experience's Jim Crow Encyclopedia,  "Disenfranchisement," by Sherita L. Johnson )


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