Black Enfranchisement: Before the Voting Rights Act

02.01.2022 Public Wise Research

Up to and including 1965 VRA

This Black history month, Public Wise wants to highlight the long and ongoing fight for voting rights for Black voters in the United States. For more than a century, the battle for the franchise has been waged across the United States in communities, state houses, courts, Congress, and the White House, and continues to this day.

Nearly five years after the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th amendment, the 15th amendment was ratified, which states that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” extending the right to vote to all men. 

In the short term, Reconstruction era amendments (13th, 14th, and 15th) paved the way for Republican and Black victories in state elections. For example, South Carolina consistently elected a Black majority to the state house during Reconstruction. However, efforts to disenfranchise and suppress Black voters were prolific. In 1868, election victories for Republicans in Louisiana resulted in high membership numbers for white supremicist groups and the deadliest massacre of the Reconstruction era. In 1877, Reconstruction effectively ended with the compromise of 1877, where Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won the presidency and in exchange, agreed to remove the troops who had been enforcing the new expansion of rights from the remaining states in the South where Republicans maintained political control: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Democrats quickly regained and consolidated their power in the region. 

Post Reconstruction, states in the South (and the North) did everything imaginable to prevent Black voters from casting a ballot. In 1890, Mississippi held a constitutional convention with, in part, the aim of rejiggering the state’s constitution to remove Black Mississippians from the electorate. The version of the constitution Mississippi established in 1890 is still in effect today (with amendments) and includes a poll tax as well as disenfranchisement for any individual convicted of a set of specific crimes. Today, approximately 16% of eligible Black voters in Mississippi cannot cast a ballot because of felony disenfranchisement. Not only that, but in 2021, 31 out of 33 applications to restore voting rights in Mississippi were rejected. 

Poll taxes and felony disenfranchisement (current implications of which we wrote about here) are far from the only tools used by states to control who voted. Another popular policy was literacy tests. Literacy tests were used in Mississippi (among other places), and required voters to transcribe passages of the state constitution and write essays in order to vote. They were not made illegal in the South until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 and were made illegal nationwide in 1970. 

States also used grandfather clauses to control enfranchisement, which allowed those who were eligible to vote just after the end of the Civil War and their descendants to bypass required literacy tests. Unsurprisingly, the law was primarily used to disenfranchise Black voters. One such grandfather clause policy in Oklahoma was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1915 in Guinn v. United States and resulted in a nationwide ban of grandfather clauses. 

Perhaps the most blatant of all discriminatory practices were white primaries. The policy, particularly popular in Texas, banned non-white voters from joining and participating in primaries for the Democratic party. However, because the Democratic party had nearly unilateral control of politics in the South, the primary determined the winner of the general election. Thus, barring non-white voters from the primary effectively removed them from the political process entirely. In 1943, the Supreme Court found that Texas’s white primary law was unconstitutional and violated the 14th and 15th Amendments in Smith v. Allwright. The effect of the law was immediate, with registration rates for Black voters quickly rising in the years following the decision. 

In addition to discriminatory laws and practices during Reconstruction and in the early 1900s, women were not allowed to vote nationwide until 1919 with the passage of the 19th amendment. Notable figures in the fight for women’s suffrage and civil rights more generally were Ida B. Wells, who founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first suffrage club for Black women and Mary Church Terrell, who was heavily involved in the women’s suffrage movement and, with Wells, was one of the founding members of the NAACP in 1909. 

While there was incremental legal progress post-Reconstruction through Supreme Court decisions and constitutional amendments, Jim Crow laws continued to keep Black voters from the ballot box. As a result, voting rights were a key component of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hammer, Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Moses, and John Lewis, among many others, were leading advocates for voting rights and organized at all levels, from grassroots campaigns to the fight to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

In 1965, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) led a march for voting rights from Selma, AL to Montogomery, AL. On what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, Alabama state troopers and law enforcement officers used tear gas, bullwhips, and clubs on those marching at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. 

Not long after Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the most consequential piece of voting legislation (and some would argue the most consequential piece of legislation period) in American history. The Voting Rights Act made enormous strides in protecting the franchise through a few key provisions. The VRA prevented states from implementing practices to deny voters the right to cast a ballot based on race (Section 2) and outlawed literacy tests (Section 4). It also created a coverage formula to determine which states or political subdivisions have used discriminatory practices in the past (Section 4(b)). States that were covered under this formula then had to seek pre approval of new voting laws from the Attorney General or federal court before the law could go into effect (Section 5). The intent of this law was to prevent harmful and discriminatory laws from ever going into effect. 

Following the passage of the VRA, registration among Black voters rose sharply in the South, as did the election of Black officials. The percentage of eligible Black voters who were registered to vote in Mississippi increased from 7% to 67% in 5 years. Much of what was so transformational about the Voting Rights Act, however, has been struck down by the Supreme Court in the past decade, despite the Act being reauthorized by Congress time and time again. In our next piece we will cover how the fight for voting rights for Black voters has changed and developed following the passage of the VRA.