The Disenfranchisement of African Americans


As voting law evolved after the Civil War in both the South and the North, the role and powers of federal, state, and municipal governments in defining the franchise became more clearly defined. During Reconstruction, the federal government had asserted its jurisdiction in unprecedented ways with the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments. And for several decades following the war, the federal government exercised some authority to protect the suffrage rights of citizens across the country. African Americans voted in large numbers across the South, and racial bars to the polls lifted in the North as well. 

But this tilt towards nationalization of the right to vote proved to be both short-lived and fragmentary. The decision of Congress to adopt a narrow version of the 15th Amendment, rather than one that protected a broad-based right to vote, as well as the failure to pass the Lodge Force Bill effectively removed the federal government from most questions of suffrage by the end of the 19th century, paving the way for states to define the contours of their own franchise in almost any way they saw fit. 

The franchise narrowed in the years leading up to World War I—dramatically in the South, and along some significant lines in the North. Political leaders in both parts of the country saw populations they wished to keep from the polls because of their race, ethnicity, and class. The parallels between North and South, of course, ought not to be overdrawn. What transpired in the southern states was far more draconian, sweeping, and violent. The disfranchisement was massive rather than segmented, the laws were enforced brutally, and they were always administered with overtly discriminatory intent. In New York and Massachusetts, an illiterate immigrant could get the franchise by learning to read; for a black man in Alabama, education was beside the point, whatever the law said. What transpired in the North was far milder than the parallel movement in the South—a testimony not only to the significance of race but also to differences in the regions’ social structures and political organizations.

In both the North and South, the legal contraction of the franchise following Reconstruction made a significant difference. Millions of people—most of them working class and poor—were deprived of the right to vote in municipal, state, and national elections. Their exclusion from the electorate meant that the outcomes of political contests were altered, different policies were put into place, different judges appointed, different taxes imposed and the relative strength of the two major parties, at least in some cities and states, was reversed, not momentarily, but for decades.