Thursday, December 27, 2007


DISFRANCHISEMENT Following the withdrawal of federal troops from the South during the late 1870's, a massive regional campaign to restore white rule and supremacy was undertaken. This goal was ultimately achieved by the nearly complete disfranchisement of the southern black population, de­spite the Fifteenth Amendment's guarantee that the right of citizens to vote "shall not be denied or abridged ... on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." At first em­ploying force, violence and intimidation coupled with the dual practice of invalidating black-cast ballots while "stuffing" fraud­ulent ballots, white southerners subsequently adopted a number of "legal" devices which had the effect of circumventing the Fifteenth Amendment. Among the most popular of these devices which effectively denied the suffrage to millions of black Amer­icans were poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and the Democratic white primary.

Owing to the southern black's relatively low economic status, the poll tax (often referred to as a head or capitation tax) was designed to be a financial hardship if not an impossibility for most to pay. In those states which adopted a poll tax as a criterion for voting, however, "poor whites" as well as blacks were often unable to pay it. A more effective and certainly more subjective method of limiting the suffrage was the literacy test. Blacks were often required to read and understand written material which even a college graduate would find difficult. Since the overwhelming majority of southern blacks had not completed high school, let alone college, very few were able to pass such a test. And since the literacy test, like the poll tax often disfranchised illiterate whites as well as blacks, most states adopted "understanding clauses" whereby the applicant could demonstrate his "literacy" by explaining written material when a voting registrar read it to him. While illiterate whites were permitted considerable leeway in regard to their "under­standing," blacks invariably were expected to demonstrate per­fect "understanding," a feat which most voting registrars rarely conceded.

Another "legal" technique used to disfranchise Afro-Americans was the grandfather clause. Adopted by Alabama, Georgia, Loui­siana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia, the typical grandfather clause was a state constitutional pro­vision permitting those who were qualified to vote on January 1, 1866, including their lineal descendants, to vote despite illiteracy. Since virtually no blacks were eligible to vote on January 1, 1866, they and their descendants could not qualify under such a clause, while practically all whites could.

The Democratic white primary election in southern states was a particularly effective means of disfranchising blacks. Since nomination of a candidate in a Democratic primary was tanta­mount to election in the solidly-Democratic South, southern Democrats declared that the Democratic Party was a private organization which could limit its membership to whites. By excluding blacks from the party itself, the Democrats succeeded in excluding them from voting in the Democratic primary elec­tions, making their vote (if they had it) in general elections meaningless.
Although the Supreme Court of the United States ruled against literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and white primaries on many occasions throughout the twentieth century, it was not until the mid-1960's that these devices were finally discarded. With the passage of the Twenty-fourth Amendment (Poll Tax Amendment) of 1964, together with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, the majority of southern blacks at last realized and began to utilize their constitutional right to vote. See also: GERRYMANDERING, TWENTY-FOURTH AMENDMENT and VOTING RIGHTS ACT.

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