Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Post Reconstruction Political Life: Disfranchisement


Political Life: Disfranchisement

From A Social History of the American Negro: Being a History of the Negro Problem in the United States, Including a History and Study of the Republic of Liberia, by Benjamin Griffith Brawley  --  By 1876 the reconstruction governments had all but passed. A few days after his inauguration in 1877 President Hayes sent to Louisiana a commission to investigate the claims of rival governments there. The decision was in favor of the Democrats. On April 9 the President ordered the removal of Federal troops from public buildings in the South; and in Columbia, S.C., within a few days the Democratic administration of Governor Wade Hampton was formally recognized. The new governments at once set about the abrogation of the election laws that had protected the Negro in the exercise of suffrage, and, having by 1877 obtained a majority in the national House of Representatives, the Democrats resorted to the practice of attaching their repeal measures to appropriation bills in the hope of compelling the President to sign them. Men who had been prominently connected with the Confederacy were being returned to Congress in increasing numbers, but in general the Democrats were not able to carry their measures over the President's veto. From the Supreme Court, however, they received practical assistance, for while this body did not formally grant that the states had full powers over elections, it nevertheless nullified many of the most objectionable sections of the laws. Before the close of the decade, by intimidation, the theft, suppression or exchange of the ballot boxes, the removal of the polls to unknown places, false certifications, and illegal arrests on the day before an election, the Negro vote had been rendered ineffectual in every state of the South.

Governor Wade Hampton

When Cleveland was elected in 1884 the Negroes of the South naturally felt that the darkest hour of their political fortunes had come. It had, for among many other things this election said that after twenty years of discussion and tumult the Negro question was to be relegated to the rear, and that the country was now to give main attention to other problems. For the Negro the new era was signalized by one of the most effective speeches ever delivered in this or any other country, all the more forceful because the orator was a man of unusual nobility of spirit. In 1886 Henry W. Grady, of Georgia, addressed the New England Club in New York on "The New South." He spoke to practical men and he knew his ground. He asked his hearers to bring their "full faith in American fairness and frankness" to judgment upon what he had to say. He pictured in brilliant language the Confederate soldier, "ragged, half-starved, heavy-hearted, who wended his way homeward to find his house in ruins and his farm devastated." He also spoke kindly of the Negro: "Whenever he struck a blow for his own liberty he fought in open battle, and when at last he raised his black and humble hands that the shackles might be struck off, those hands were innocent of wrong against his helpless charges." But Grady also implied that the Negro had received too much attention and sympathy from the North. Said he: "To liberty and enfranchisement is as far as law can carry the Negro. The rest must be left to conscience and common sense." Hence on this occasion and others he asked that the South be left alone in the handling of her grave problem. The North, a little tired of the Negro question, a little uncertain also as to the wisdom of the reconstruction policy that it had forced on the South, and if concerned with this section at all, interested primarily in such investments as it had there, assented to this request; and in general the South now felt that it might order its political life in its own way.

Image: President Chester Arthur accompanies Presidentelect Grover Cleveland from the White House to the inauguration, March Cover of Harpers Weekly March 15 1885. White House Historical Association.
President Chester Arthur accompanies President-elect Grover Cleveland from the White House to the inauguration, March Cover of Harpers Weekly March 15 1885. White House Historical Association.

As yet, however, the Negro was not technically disfranchised, and at any moment a sudden turn of events might call him into prominence. Formal legislation really followed the rise of the Populist party, which about 1890 in many places in the South waged an even contest with the Democrats. It was evident that in such a struggle the Negro might still hold the balance of power, and within the next few years a fusion of the Republicans and the Populists in North Carolina sent a Negro, George H. White, to Congress. This event finally served only to strengthen the movement for disfranchisement which had already begun. In 1890 the constitution of Mississippi was so amended as to exclude from the suffrage any person who had not paid his poll-tax or who was unable to read any section of the constitution, or understand it when read to him, or to give a reasonable interpretation of it. The effect of the administration of this provision was that in 1890 only 8615 Negroes out of 147,000 of voting age became registered. South Carolina amended her constitution with similar effect in 1895. In this state the population was almost three-fifths Negro and two-fifths white. The franchise of the Negro was already in practical abeyance; but the problem now was to devise a means for the perpetuity of a government of white men. Education was not popular as a test, for by it many white illiterates would be disfranchised and in any case it would only postpone the race issue. For some years the dominant party had been engaged in factional controversies, with the populist wing led by Benjamin R. Tillman prevailing over the conservatives. It was understood, however, that each side would be given half of the membership of the convention, which would exclude all Negro and Republican representation, and that the constitution would go into effect without being submitted to the people. Said the most important provision: "Any person who shall apply for registration after January 1, 1898, if otherwise qualified, shall be registered; provided that he can both read and write any section of this constitution submitted to him by the registration officer or can show that he owns and has paid all taxes collectible during the previous year on property in this state assessed at three hundred dollars or more"—clauses which it is hardly necessary to say the registrars regularly interpreted in favor of white men and against the Negro. In 1898 Louisiana passed an amendment inventing the so-called "grandfather clause." This excused from the operation of her disfranchising act all descendants of men who had voted before the Civil War, thus admitting to the suffrage all white men who were illiterate and without property. North Carolina in 1900, Virginia and Alabama in 1901, Georgia in 1907, and Oklahoma in 1910 in one way or another practically disfranchised the Negro, care being taken in every instance to avoid any definite clash with the Fifteenth Amendment. In Maryland there have been several attempts to disfranchise the Negro by constitutional amendments, one in 1905, another in 1909, and still another in 1911, but all have failed. About the intention of its disfranchising legislation the South, as represented by more than one spokesman, was very frank. Unfortunately the new order called forth a group of leaders—represented by Tillman in South Carolina, Hoke Smith in Georgia, and James K. Vardaman in Mississippi—who made a direct appeal to prejudice and thus capitalized the racial feeling that already had been brought to too high tension.


Naturally all such legislation as that suggested had ultimately to be brought before the highest tribunal in the country. The test came over the following section from the Oklahoma law: "No person shall be registered as an elector of this state or be allowed to vote in any election herein unless he shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution of the State of Oklahoma; but no person who was on January 1, 1866, or at any time prior thereto, entitled to vote under any form of government, or who at any time resided in some foreign nation, and no lineal descendant of such person shall be denied the right to register and vote because of his inability to so read and write sections of such Constitution." This enactment the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 1915. The decision exerted no great and immediate effect on political conditions in the South; nevertheless as the official recognition by the nation of the fact that the Negro was not accorded his full political rights, it was destined to have far-reaching effect on the whole political fabric of the section.


When the era of disfranchisement began it was in large measure expected by the South that with the practical elimination of the Negro from politics this section would become wider in its outlook and divide on national issues. Such has not proved to be the case. Except for the noteworthy deflection of Tennessee in the presidential election of 1920, and Republican gains in some counties in other states, this section remains just as "solid" as it was forty years ago, largely of course because the Negro, through education and the acquisition of property, is becoming more and more a potential factor in politics. Meanwhile it is to be observed that the Negro is not wholly without a vote, even in the South, and sometimes his power is used with telling effect, as in the city of Atlanta in the spring of 1919, when he decided in the negative the question of a bond issue. In the North moreover—especially in Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York—he has on more than one occasion proved the deciding factor in political affairs. Even when not voting, however, he involuntarily wields tremendous influence on the destinies of the nation, for even though men may be disfranchised, all are nevertheless counted in the allotment of congressmen to Southern states. This anomalous situation means that in actual practice the vote of one white man in the South is four or six or even eight times as strong as that of a man in the North;203 and it directly accounted for the victory of President Wilson and the Democrats over the Republicans led by Charles E. Hughes in 1916. For remedying it by the enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment bills have been frequently presented in Congress, but on these no action has been taken.
(source: A Social History of the American Negro: Being a History of the Negro Problem in the United States, Including a History and Study of the Republic of Liberia, by Benjamin Griffith Brawley)

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