Introduction to “African American Suffrage”

Following the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, African Americans were the largest group of American citizens who remained disenfranchised. The 19th Amendment had nearly doubled the size of the electorate, but after it became law, legal and political initiatives that changed the contours of the franchise subsided for a time. The movements and counter-movements that had characterized the national debate over voting since the Civil War disappeared momentarily. Even efforts to legislate African Americans out of the voting population diminished—most states in the South had successfully disenfranchised almost all African Americans and left little room for the status quo to be challenged. The result was a period of about 40 years where voting laws remained remarkably stable, and the conversation all but disappeared from national politics.

The silence would break in the 1960s. World War II had placed enormous pressure on the country for social change, and the ideological climate of the Cold War ensured that pressure would only mount. If the United States was going to be a beacon of democratic values for the rest of the world, then it would need to address the serious concerns of social justice and civil rights at home. The Civil Rights movement put pressure on the federal government to undertake a broad reconstruction of the legal principles governing the franchise, and to remedy the nation’s most glaring limitation on democracy: the exclusion of African Americans from voting in the South.

Over the course of the 1960s and early 1970s, the right to vote was effectively nationalized for the first time in the history of the United States. The ability of individual states to keep men and women from the polls was severely limited by newly democratic rules emanating from Congress and from the federal judiciary. The balance of power in defining the franchise shifted decidedly from individual states into the hands of the federal government. By the early 1970s, the United States, formally at least, had something very close to universal suffrage.

“The Council of State Governments investigated state suffrage laws, and the results show a poor substitute for the “universal suffrage” guaranteed by the Constitution. Citizens may be disqualified from voting for more than 50 reasons, and every state except Michigan has at least one provision for disqualification. Alabama has twenty-five and South Carolina twenty-eight. On the credit side, Illinois and Pennsylvania have only one each, and Vermont two. The average is about six. Convicted felons are barred in 40 states. Lesser crimes that are punishable by disenfranchisement range from betting on an election to wife beating. Treason, electoral bribery, bigamy, perjury, adultery, malfeasance in office, receiving stolen goods, and miscegenation are all reasons for losing the right to vote in at least one state. Five states bar Indians and Rhode Island specifically bars Narragansett Indians. Insane persons, idiots, illiterates, incompetents, soldiers, sailors, and “immoral persons” are generally disenfranchised. Disqualification of paupers, the infamous poll taxes in eight states, and some amazing registration and residence requirements make the list almost complete. Add to this the terrorism which prevents Negros and unpopular minorities from voting, and the wonder is that anyone is left to go to the polls.”

— The New Republic, 1940