Disenfranchisement after the Reconstruction Era

A white supremacist Democratic Party campaign poster from 1866.

Disenfranchisement after the Reconstruction Era[1] deals with the efforts made by Southern states of the former Confederacy at the turn of the 20th century in the United States to prevent their black citizens from registering to vote and voting. Their actions defied the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1870, which was intended to protect the suffrage of freedmen after the American Civil War.

Considerable violence and fraud had accompanied elections during Reconstruction, as the white Democrats used paramilitary groups from the 1870s to suppress black Republican voting and turn Republicans out of office. After regaining control of the state legislatures, Democrats were alarmed by a late 19th-century alliance between Republicans and Populists that cost them some elections. In North Carolina's Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 (long called a race riot by whites), white Democrats conducted a coup d'etat of city government, the only one in United States history. They overturned a duly elected biracial government and widely attacked the black community, destroying lives and property.

Ultimately, white Democrats added to previous efforts and achieved widespread disenfranchisement by law: from 1890 to 1908, Southern state legislatures passed new constitutions, constitutional amendments, and laws that made voter registration and voting more difficult. This turn of events achieved the intended result of disenfranchising most of the black citizens, as well as many poor whites in the South.

The Republican Party was nearly eliminated in the region for decades, until the late 20th century, when a wholesale party realignment took place. Southern Democrats controlled the southern states based on white supremacy. As Congressional apportionment was based on the total population, the Southern white Democrats, the Southern bloc, had tremendous legislative power for decades. Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment could have reduced Congressional representation for states that denied suffrage on racial grounds, but this provision was not enforced, as opponents of the Southern bloc could not overcome their political power.[2]

In 1912, [3] During World War I, American military forces were segregated, with black soldiers poorly trained and equipped; they were often sent on suicide missions. Disenfranchisement had other far-reaching effects in Congress, where the Democratic South gained "about 25 extra seats in Congress for each decade between 1903 and 1953."[2] Also, the Democratic dominance in the South meant that southern Senators and Representatives were entrenched in Congress, gaining seniority privileges and control of chairmanships of important committees, as well as leadership of the national Democratic Party.[2] During the Great Depression, legislation establishing numerous national social programs were passed without the representation of African Americans, leading to gaps in program coverage.

In addition, because black Southerners were not listed on local voter rolls, they were automatically excluded from serving jury duty in local courts.

Racial segregation in the U.S. military was ended by Executive Order of President Harry S. Truman in 1948, after World War II. Disenfranchisement did not end until after passage of federal civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s, which included authority for the federal government to monitor voter registration practices and elections and enforce constitutional voting rights.


  • Background 1
  • Post-Reconstruction disenfranchisement 2
  • State disenfranchising constitutions, 1890-1908 3
  • Black and white disenfranchisement 4
    • Poll taxes 4.1
    • Educational and character requirements 4.2
    • Eight Box Law 4.3
    • Grandfather clause 4.4
    • Louisiana 4.5
    • North Carolina 4.6
    • Virginia 4.7
    • White primaries 4.8
  • Congressional response 5
  • Woodrow Wilson's elections 6
  • Legislative and cultural effects 7
    • 20th-century Supreme Court decisions 7.1
    • Successful challenges 7.2
  • Civil rights movement 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11


The American Civil War ended in 1865, marking the start of the Reconstruction era in the eleven former Confederate states. Congress refused to re-admit these states back to the Union until they were reconstructed and freedmen's rights to vote safeguarded. In 1866, ten of these states did not provide suffrage and equal civil rights to freedmen. The exception was Tennessee, which had adopted a new constitution in 1865.[4] Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, starting in 1867, establishing military districts to oversee the affairs of these states pending reconstruction.

During the Reconstruction era, blacks constituted absolute majorities of the populations in Mississippi and South Carolina, were equal to the white population in Louisiana, and represented more than 40% of the population in four other former Confederate states. Southern whites, fearing black domination, resisted the freedmen's exercise of political power.[5] In 1867, black men voted for the first time. By the 1868 presidential election, Texas, Mississippi, and Virginia had still not been re-admitted to the Union. Radical Republican Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant was elected president thanks to 700,000 black voters. In February 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified; it was designed to protect blacks' right to vote from infringement by the states.

White supremacist Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was formed in 1865 in Tennessee (as a backlash to defeat in the war) and quickly became a powerful secret vigilante group, with chapters across the South. The Klan initiated a campaign of intimidation directed against blacks and sympathetic whites. Their violence included vandalism and destruction of property, physical attacks and assassinations, and lynchings. Teachers who came from the North to teach freedmen were sometimes attacked or intimidated as well. Under the Force Acts of 1870, the KKK was suppressed by federal prosecution.

Klan murders led habeas corpus under those circumstances. President Grant used these provisions in parts of the Carolinas in late 1871. United States marshals supervised state voter registrations and elections and could summon the help of military or naval forces if needed.[6] These measures led to the demise of the first Klan by the early 1870s.

New paramilitary groups unleashed a second wave of violence, resulting in over 1,000 deaths, usually black or Republican. The Supreme Court ruled in 1876 in United States v. Cruikshank, arising from trials related to the Colfax Massacre, that protections of the Fourteenth Amendment, which the Enforcement Acts were intended to support, did not apply to the actions of individuals, but only to the actions of state governments.

More significant were freedmen to keep them away from the polls.

Such groups have been described as "the military arm of the Democratic Party."[7] They were instrumental in many Southern states in driving blacks away from the polls and ensuring a white Democratic takeover of legislatures and governorships in most Southern states in the 1870s, most notoriously during the controversial 1876 elections. As a result of a national Compromise of 1877 arising from the 1876 presidential election, the federal government withdrew its forces from the South, formally ending the Reconstruction era. By that time, Southern Democrats had effectively regained control in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida – they identified as the Redeemers. In the South, the process has been called "the Redemption". African-American historians sometimes call the Compromise of 1877 "The Great Betrayal."[8]

Post-Reconstruction disenfranchisement

Following continuing violence around elections as insurgents worked to suppress black voting, the Democratic-dominated Southern states passed legislation to create barriers to voter registrations by blacks and poll tax in 1877. Other measures followed, particularly near the end of the century, after a Republican-Populist alliance caused the Democrats to temporarily lose some Congressional seats and control of some gubernatorial positions.

Results could be seen across the South in states such as Tennessee. After Reconstruction, Tennessee initially had the most "consistently competitive political system in the South".[9] A bitter election battle in 1888, marked by unmatched corruption and violence, resulted in white Democrats' taking over the state legislature. To consolidate their power, they worked to suppress the black vote and sharply reduced it through changes in voter registration, requiring poll taxes, as well as changing election procedures to make voting more complex.

In 1890 Mississippi adopted a new constitution, which contained provisions for voter registration which required voters to pass a literacy test and pay poll taxes. The literacy test was subjectively applied by white administrators, and the two provisions effectively disenfranchised most blacks and many poor whites. The constitutional provisions survived a Supreme Court challenge in Williams v. Mississippi (1898). Other southern states quickly adopted new constitutions and what they called the "Mississippi plan."

By 1908, all Southern states of the former Confederacy had passed new constitutions, sometimes bypassing general elections to achieve this. Legislators created a variety of barriers, including longer residency requirements, rule variations, literacy and understanding tests, which were subjectively applied against minorities, or were particularly hard for the poor to fulfill.[10] Such constitutional provisions were unsuccessfully challenged at the Supreme Court in Giles v. Harris (1903). In practice, these provisions, including white primaries, created a maze that blocked most blacks and many poor whites from voting in Southern states until passage of federal civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s.[11] Voter registration and turnout dropped sharply across the South, as most blacks and many poor whites were excluded from the political system.

The disenfranchisement of a large proportion of voters attracted the attention of Congress, and in 1900 some members proposed stripping the South of seats, related to the number of people who were barred from voting. Apportionment of seats was still based on total population (with the assumption of the usual number of voting males in relation to the residents); as a result white Southerners commanded a number of seats far out of proportion to the voters they represented.[12] In the end, Congress did not act on this issue, as the Southern bloc of Democrats had sufficient power to reject or stall such action. For decades, white Southern Democrats exercised Congressional representation derived from a full count of the population, but they disfranchised several million black and white citizens. Southern white Democrats comprised a powerful voting bloc in Congress until the mid-20th century. Their representatives, re-elected repeatedly by one-party states, exercised the power of seniority, controlling numerous chairmanships of important committees in both houses. Their power allowed them to have control over rules, budgets and important patronage projects, among other issues, as well as to defeat bills to make lynching a federal crime.[11]

State disenfranchising constitutions, 1890-1908

Despite white Southerners' complaints about Reconstruction, several Southern states kept most provisions of their Reconstruction constitutions for more than two decades, until late in the 19th century.[13] In some states, the number of blacks elected to local offices reached a peak in the 1880s although Reconstruction had ended. They had an influence at the local level, although not winning many statewide or national seats. Subsequently, state legislatures passed restrictive laws that made voter registration and election rules more complicated. In addition, most legislatures drafted new constitutions or amendments that adopted indirect methods for limiting the vote by most blacks and, often, many poor whites.

Florida approved a new constitution in 1885 that included provisions for poll taxes as a prerequisite for voter registration and voting. From 1890 to 1908, ten of the eleven Southern states rewrote their constitutions. All included provisions that effectively restricted voter registration and suffrage, including requirements for poll taxes, increased residency, and subjective literacy tests.[14]

With educational improvements, blacks had markedly increased their rate of literacy. By 1891, their illiteracy had declined to 58%. The rate of white illiteracy in the South was 31%.[15] Some states used grandfather clauses to exempt white voters from literacy tests altogether. Other states required otherwise eligible black voters to meet literacy and knowledge requirements to the satisfaction of white registrars, who applied subjective judgment and, in the process, rejected most black voters. By 1900, the majority of blacks were literate, but even many of the best-educated of these men continued to "fail" the literacy tests administered by white registrars.

The historian black belt members," whom he identified as "always socioeconomically privileged." In addition to wanting to affirm white supremacy, the planter and business elite were concerned about voting by lower-class and uneducated whites. Kousser found, "They disfranchised these whites as willingly as they deprived blacks of the vote."[16] Perman noted the goals of disenfranchisement resulted from several factors. Competition between white elites and white lower classes, for example, and a desire to prevent alliances between lower-class white and black Americans, as had been seen in Populist-Republican alliances, led white Democratic legislators to restrict voter rolls.[14]

With the passage of new constitutions, Southern states adopted provisions that caused disenfranchisement of large portions of their populations by skirting US constitutional protections of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. While their voter registration requirements applied to all citizens, in practice they disenfranchised most blacks and, as in Alabama, also "would remove [from voter registration rolls] the less educated, less organized, more impoverished whites as well - and that would ensure one-party Democratic rules through most of the 20th century in the South."[11][17]

As white Democrats sought to regain political power in the South in the 1870s, they worked to suppress black voting. The paramilitary Red Shirts (Southern United States) and White League intimidated and attacked black voters, and often turned Republicans out of office. The new provisions of the state constitutions eliminated black voting by law. Secondly, the Democratic legislatures passed Jim Crow laws to assert white supremacy, establish racial segregation in public facilities, and treat blacks as second-class citizens. The landmark court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) held that "separate but equal" facilities, as on railroad cars, was constitutional. The new constitutions passed numerous Supreme Court challenges. In cases where a particular restriction was overruled by the Supreme Court in the early 20th century, states quickly devised new methods of excluding most blacks from voting, such as the white primary. The only competitive contests in southern states were reduced to Democratic Party primaries.

For the national Democratic Party, the alignment after Reconstruction resulted in a Southern anchor that was useful for congressional clout. But, it inhibited the national party from fulfilling center-left initiatives prior to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Southerner Woodrow Wilson, one of the two Democrats elected to the presidency between Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, was elected due to a "bonus" of electoral votes resulting from the disenfranchisement of blacks and crippling of the Republican Party in the South.[2] Soon after taking office, Wilson directed the segregation of federal facilities in the District of Columbia, which had been integrated during Reconstruction.

Black and white disenfranchisement

Poll taxes

Proof of payment of a