Reconstruction-Era Disfranchisement and Present-Day Voter Suppression
July 25, 2012 1 Comment
By Jasmine Tucker
Disfranchisement for African-Americans has been one of the many hurdles that Blacks have had to jump over. As early as the late 1870s, southern Democrats have worked to weaken Black political power. Violence and intimidation scared many Blacks from voting. White landlords would sometimes threaten or bribe Black sharecroppers and renters not to vote or to vote for the landlord’s candidates.
White leaders were concerned that if they forced what were then legally suitable barriers to voting – literacy tests, poll taxes, and property qualifications – they would also disfranchise many White voters. However, in 1882, South Carolina passed the Eight Box Law, a primal literacy test that required voters to deposit separate ballots for separate election races in the proper ballot box. Illiterate voters could not recognize the boxes unless White officials assisted them.
Mississippi made the most triumphant attempt to eliminate Black voters without openly violating the Fifteenth Amendment. In 1889, Black leaders from 40 Mississippi counties protested the “violent and criminal suppression of the black vote.” In response, White men called a constitutional convention to do away with the Black vote.
With 1 Black delegate and 134 White delegates, the convention formulated meticulous voting standards that – without mentioning race – disfranchised Black voters. Voting required proof of residency and payment of all taxes, including a $2 poll tax. A person convicted of arson or petty theft – crimes the delegates linked with Black people – could not vote. However, people convicted of so-called “White crimes” such as murder and rape could vote. The new Mississippi constitution also required voters to be literate, but illiterate men could still meet the criteria to vote by proving that they understood the constitution if it was read to them.
Black voting in South Carolina waned since the end of Reconstruction. Unhappy that even so few voters might decide an election, U.S. Senator Benjamin R. Tillman won support for a constitutional convention in 1895. The convention followed Mississippi’s lead and fashioned an “understanding clause” but not without a protest from Black leaders. Six Black men and 154 White men were elected to the South Carolina Convention including Robert Smalls who had been a delegate to the 1868 constitutional convention. The six Black men protested Black disfranchisement, even though their cries were not considered. White delegates didn’t even pretend that the elections should be fair.
In 1898, Louisiana added a new twist to disfranchisement. Its grandfather clause predetermined that only men who had been eligible to vote before 1867 – or whose father or grandfather had been eligible before that year – would be qualified to vote. Because most Black men had just emerged from slavery, practically none were qualified to vote before 1867, thus the law instantly disfranchised almost all Black voters. Except for Kentucky and West Virginia, each southern state had enacted complicated limitations on voting by the 1890s. As a result, very few Black men continued to vote, and none were elected to office.
In the meantime, Congressional Republicans made a last, ineffective attempt to protect Black- voting rights. In 1890, Massachusetts Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge introduced a bill to necessitate federal supervision of elections in congressional districts where fraud and intimidation were suspected. White southerners were furious and labeled it the “Force bill,” because they wrongly believed that it would force Black rule over White people.
This Federal Elections bill easily passed the House but failed in the Senate after a 33-day Democratic filibuster. That ended the last important congressional attempt to defend Black-voting rights in the South until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This week, Gene Demby of the Huffington Post wrote a truly compelling article that put a major emphasis on the importance of Black participation in the upcoming election season. The National Urban League recently posted a report that acknowledged the importance of black voter turnout in this upcoming election. The report focused on North Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio, which are significant swing states during the election period.
According to the report, from 2004 to 2008, the Black voter turnout rate increased from 60% in 2004 to 65% in 2008. The study also revealed that Blacks are more likely to vote if they are registered. About 93% of registered Blacks voted in national elections compared to 90% of Whites and 84% of Hispanics. Young Blacks were the driving force behind the rush of African-Americans at the polls.
Due to these significant trends, Republican-dominated legislatures have approved voter ID laws that will require voters to present certain forms of official ID in order to vote. Proponents of the laws say they are intended to reduce voter fraud. However, voting rights organizations like the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, pinpointed that voter fraud is extremely uncommon, while others noticed that the demographic populations most affected by the legislation are African-Americans, Latinos, young people, and the poor, who usually vote Democrat.
In light of this new information, I could only think back to the many methods that were imposed on African-Americans to prevent them for voting. The ludicrous thing about this circumstance is that it’s preventing Blacks, but young people, the poor, and Latinos from voting for a Black man. I still find it hard to believe that there are still people trying to institutionalize racist acts and policies on people. However this time, it doesn’t only affect African-Americans, but a whole rainbow coalition of people.
The question now is, how do we make it stop? We teach our young children about all the barriers that Blacks had to fight to receive the right to vote. Nonetheless, they are living in a time were these barriers are being recycled into legislations that now require IDs to vote. All I can hope for is that in the midst of this political war of a campaign, someone in Congress will find the heart to deter these acts, so that our children will not have to fight for the same rights our ancestors fought for years before our time.
Jasmine Tucker is a senior sociology major/African-American Studies minor at Howard University. She’s also an educational issues intern at the American Federation of Teachers. Follow Jasmine on Twitter @YourQueen2Bee and friend her on Facebook.