The Disenfranchisement of African Americans

With the failure of the Lodge Force Bill, the path was clear for southern states to systematically and deliberately disenfranchise African Americans. Democrats began to modify voting laws across the South in ways that would exclude African Americans from the polls without explicitly violating the 15th Amendment. While some states had been bold enough to more towards excluding blacks in the 1870s and 1880s, it was beginning in 1890 that legal schemes aimed at disenfranchising blacks became the primary weapon to ensure “redeemer” rule. In just a few years, white southerners successfully rolled back all of the progress that had been made toward African American suffrage in the South, removing an entire population from the franchise less than a quarter-century after they had been granted it. 

The 1890s launched a period when many state constitutions were rewritten in the South, as white political leaders sought to replace the documents drafted during Reconstruction. In them, states adopted poll taxes, cumulative poll taxes (demanding that past as well as current taxes be paid), literacy tests, secret ballot laws, lengthy residence requirements, elaborate registration systems, confusing multiple voting box arrangements, and criminal exclusion laws, all aimed at disenfranchising African Americans en masse.  

“The great underlying principle of this Convention movement…was the elimination of the Negro from the politics of this State,” said one delegate to Virginia’s constitutional convention of 1901-1902. 

Literacy Tests and Discrete Schemes of Disenfranchisement

Literacy tests were particularly effective: 50% of all black men where illiterate. Likewise, even a small poll tax was a great deterrent to the poor, and African Americans who had just emerged from slavery had nothing to their name. 

Many of the legal schemes of disenfranchisement were designed to be administered in a directly discriminatory fashion. Election officials could administer tests, file paperwork, grant exceptions, or issue tax receipts according to their preference, clearing the way easily for white voters, but erecting every manner of obstacle for potential black voters, ensuring they never came close to the polls.  “Discrimination! Why, that is precisely what we propose,” intoned future Senator Carter Glass at Virginia’s Constitutional convention of 1901–1902. “That, exactly, is what this convention was elected for—to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limitations of the Federal Constitution, with a view to the elimination of every Negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.” 

To ensure that voting laws were as efficient as possible in discriminating against African Americans, states adopted grandfather clauses that exempted men from literacy, tax, residency, or property requirements if they performed military service or if their ancestors voted in the 1860s. The first southern grandfather clause was adopted in South Carolina in 1890, and most other southern states followed suit soon thereafter. 

Disenfranchisement of Poor Whites and African Americans

Laws aimed at disenfranchising African Americans were not universally supported in the South. Even though the Democratic party was firmly in control of the region, there were still some Republicans and others who supported the idea of black political rights. Some opposed disenfranchisement laws on the grounds that they would only serve to further solidify elite Democratic control, neglecting the interests of some parts of the South, like small farmers. 

The most common criticism against discriminatory laws, however, was that they might discriminate against poor whites as well as they discriminated against African Americans. But the desire to push African Americans from the polls easily overshadowed such objections. It can also be said that many advocates for discriminatory voting laws were perfectly comfortable with the idea that the laws might keep some poor whites away from the polls. It is interesting that in circumventing the 15th Amendment, southern Democrats went a long way towards resurrecting class-based obstacles to voting. 

African American Participation Radically Declines after 1890

The laws, of course, worked. In Mississippi after 1890, less than 9,000 out of 147,000 voting age blacks were registered to vote; in Louisiana only 1,342 blacks registered to vote in 1904 where more than 130,000 blacks of been registered to vote in 1896. The black electorate, which had been strong enough to send several African American men to Congress a few years earlier, was almost completely gone. 

What this meant for the history of the 20th century South is well known. The African American population remained largely disfranchised until the 1960s. Not only were African Americans deprived to the right to vote, they could not send representatives to advocate for their interests, nor pass social programs or educational support that would aid the African American community. 

As the party of white supremacy, Democrats maintained an iron grip on Southern politics for decades. The expansion of democracy in the United States had been reversed, and the South at the turn of the century, a profoundly undemocratic society.