The year is 1876, America is towards the end of what is known as the Reconstruction Era, the period from 1863-1877 where the remnants of Confederate nationalism and slavery ended.
During this period, three Constitutional amendments were made.
- The 13th Amendment to abolish slavery
- The 14th Amendment, guaranteeing United States citizenship to all persons born or naturalised in the United States and granting them federal civil rights
- The 15th Amendment ensured the right to vote could not be denied because of “race, colour, or previous condition of servitude.”
However, the issue I wish to address today derives from an abused loophole within the 15th Amendment.
Firstly, let us take a look at the amendment as a whole:
Section 1. 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.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The Amendment failed in the regard that it didn’t make the vote an unconditional right, that is, individuals could still be required to meet other conditions than those listed in Section 1.
In regards to Section 2, this power was not utilised until 1965 when the Civil Rights Act was passed, a great bill that made sweeping reforms to ensure African-Americans had the right to vote secured in actuality, not just in writing.
Which brings us back to the title, how did African-American turnout drop from 96% to 11% in just over two decades?
Firstly, this significant drop took place across South Carolina, whilst the South as a bloc saw a drop from 61% to just 2%. This dropped was a symptom of Democrats efforts to secure power after the voting demographic changes that occurred due to Reconstruction.
In 1866 the percentage of black men who were eligible to vote increased from 0.5% to 80.5% over only two years.
This sudden increase in voting population was condensed in the slave-owning states of the South, where in quite a few States the African-American population outnumbered the white population.
Over the next decade, roughly 2000 Freedmen were elected to office, including 14 members of Congress and two senators. In Louisiana, one of the former Confederate states, a little over 40% of the Legislature was African-American throughout the 1870’s.
This was a problem to White-Democrats due to the clear fact that Freedmen overwhelming voted in favour of the Republicans. This led the Democrats to lose power in North Carolina, Tennessee throughout the 1880’s as well as almost losing Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas in the 1890’s.
American Political Scientist, V.O. Key Jr. once stated that had fair democratic elections continued, it “would have been fatal to the status of black belt whites”.
White Democrats were adamant to retain political power. Groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were born and gained power during this time, intimidating and threatening African-American legislators.
Former Georgia senator Robert Toombs once stated “Give us a [constitutional] convention, and I will fix it so that… the Negro shall never be heard from.”.
Which ultimately, is what happened.
As the 15th Amendment didn’t ban conditions for voting, and the power to set these conditions was still a power given to the states, new measures were introduced to reduce the turnout and power of the black vote.
Such measures include, but were not limited too:
- Poll taxes
- Property Requirements
- Literacy Tests
- Complex Written Ballots
As most of the African-American population at the time was either poor or illiterate most of the black voting population didn’t meet the requirements necessary for them to be able to vote.
One such example of this was South Carolina’s ‘Eight Box Law’ which created a complex ballot which made it almost impossible for illiterate African-American to vote.
The measure was so effective that in 1888, Governor John Richardson said outright, “We now have the rule of a minority of 400,000 [whites] over a majority of 600,000 [blacks]… the only thing that stands between us and their rule is a flimsy statue – the Eight Box Law.”
You’re able to visually see how effective disenfranchising was at securing Democratic control in the South by comparing the results of elections in 1872 to 1900 and 1920.
As you can see for 1976, there are large pockets of Republican voters in the South; these were areas with large African-American populations.
As you’re able to witness, in just 24 years, areas that were previously Republican strongholds are now firmly Democratic, with only a few patches of Republican control throughout the South.
This final map offers Congressional data which reveals how stark the entrenchment of Disenfranchisement was in the South, with states such as Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina, Mississippi lending almost no votes to the Republicans.
This is all despite African-Americans making up nearly half the population in each of these states. In South Carolina, African-Americans were 48.6% of the population!
Ultimately, political desires by the White-Democrats of the South led to the enactment of laws that purposefully drove down the ability of African-Americans to turnout for the vote, entrenching political power in the South for almost a century.