Voting Rights for Blacks and Poor Whites in the Jim Crow South

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Scholar-Griot: Russell Brooker, PhD

Copy Editors: Adecola Adedapo and Fran Kaplan, EdD

Photo Editor: Fran Kaplan, EdD

 

From about 1900 to 1965, most African Americans were not allowed to vote in the South. This was especially true in the Deep South: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.

White people in power used many methods to keep African Americans from voting.  Some of these methods also prevented poor white people from voting.

Eight Ways People Were Kept From Voting

1) Violence: Blacks who tried to vote were threatened, beaten, and killed.  Their families were also harmed.  Sometimes their homes were burned down.  Often, they lost their jobs or were thrown off their farms.

Whites used violence to intimidate blacks and prevent them from even thinking about voting. Still, some blacks passed the requirements to vote and took the risk. Some whites used violence to punish those “uppity” people and show other blacks what would happen to them if they voted.

2) Literacy tests: Today almost all adults can read.  One hundred years ago, however, many people – black and white – were illiterate.  Most illiterate people were not allowed to vote. A few were allowed if they could understand what was read to them.  White officials usually claimed that whites could understand what was read. They said blacks could not understand it, even when they clearly could.

3) Property tests: In the South one hundred years ago, many states allowed only property owners to vote.  Many blacks and whites had no property and could not vote.

4) Grandfather clause: People who could not read and owned no property were allowed to vote if their fathers or grandfathers had voted before 1867.  Of course, practically no blacks could vote before 1867, so the grandfather clause worked only for whites.

5) All-white primary elections: In the United States, there are usually two rounds of elections: first the primary, then the general.  In the primary, Republicans run against Republicans and Democrats run against Democrats.  In the general election, the winner of the Republican primary runs against the winner of the Democratic primary.  The Republican or Democrat who gets the most votes is elected.

In the South from about 1900 to about 1960, the Democratic candidates usually won. (See the exhibit Political Parties in Black and White to learn the reason for this.)  Republicans were almost never elected, especially in the Deep South.  This means that the Democratic primary election was usually the only election that mattered.

African Americans were not allowed to vote in the Democratic primary elections.  White Democrats said the Democratic Party was a “club” and did not allow black members.  So blacks could not vote in the only elections that mattered.

6) Purges: From time to time, white officials purged the voting rolls.  That means they took people’s names off the official lists of voters. Some voters would arrive at the polls and find that they were not registered to vote. Often they could not register to vote again until after the election.  Purges more often affected blacks than whites.

7) Former prisoners: People who had gone to prison were often not allowed to vote.  Blacks were very often arrested on trumped-up charges or for minor offenses. Sometimes, white owners of mines, farms, and factories simply needed cheap labor, and prisons provided it. This law kept many more blacks from voting than whites.

8) Poll taxes: In Southern states, people had to pay a tax to vote. The taxes were about $25 to $50 dollars in today’s money. Many people had extremely low incomes and could not afford this tax.  This poll tax applied to all people who wanted to vote – black and white.  There were ways for whites to get around other laws, but not around the poll tax.  Many poor whites could not vote because of the poll tax.

Blacks Finally Got the Right to Vote – Not So Long Ago

In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. Millions of African Americans began voting as a result. This Act is generally considered the end of  the Jim Crow Era.

Today most of these ways to stop people from voting are illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court said that states could not use the grandfather clause and could not have all-white primary elections.  The U.S. Constitution was amended in 1964 to make poll taxes illegal.  Literacy and property tests are not used today. While violence is seldom used, voter intimidation does still occur.

But…

There are still vestiges – laws and customs – that make it difficult or impossible for many black citizens and other minorities to vote.

  • Former felons are not allowed to vote in most states. (Different states have different laws.)
  • Purges of the voter rolls are still used to get rid of African American and Latino voters.
  • Government-issued IDs, like driver licenses or special photo IDs, are now required in some states. This is similar to a poll tax. Here is why:
    • To get this ID, people have to travel to special offices that are often far away from where they live. Many black, brown, and elderly people do not own cars.
    • They must present birth certificates.  Getting a copy of your birth certificate costs time and money (from $10-$45).  More black and brown people than whites lack birth certificates, for a variety of reasons, such as being born at home.
    • The housing foreclosure crisis has left many people homeless or with temporary addresses. You need a permanent address to get a voter ID. More African American, Latino, and poor white families have been affected by foreclosures than white middle-class families.

In these ways, many African American, Latino, elderly and poor white citizens are now forced to pay for their right to vote, as blacks were during Jim Crow.

Read more the struggle for voting rights here.

Read more about about voter suppression today and movements to oppose it here and here

Sources:

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

Goldman, Robert M. Reconstruction & Black Suffrage: Losing the Vote in Reece & Cruikshank.  Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

Litwack, Leon F. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.  New York: Random House, 1998.

McAdam, Doug. Political Progress and the Development of Black Insurgency 1930-1970. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982

Woodward, C. Vann. Origins of the New South 1877-1913. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 3rd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Zelden, Charles L. The Battle for the Ballot, Smith v. Allwright and the Defeat of the Texas All-White Primary. Lawrence, Kansas: The University of Kansas, 2004

Russell G. Brooker, PhD, is Professor of Political Science at Alverno College, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  He teaches courses in political science, and research methodology.  He has taught courses in African American history, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement since 1981.  He is currently writing a book on the civil rights movement before 1954. 

18 Comments

  1. Darnell Parr on September 25, 2012 at 7:50 PM

    Since President Obama was elected to office back in 2008.I had seen voters suppression tying to come back.My question is this ronald regan won twice big time.But no one said anything,there was no out cry of voters suppression. Clinton won twice but still no out cry of voters surppression.and now President Obama won big and now there is voters surppression laws trying to be enforced.Why? oh wait because he is black.My grandfather told me this 30 years ago.A white man shows up and say he went to harvard and yale and have masters in law and business,he was at the top of his class,and everybody takes his worded for it.A black man shows up and say he went to harvard and with to oxford have a phd and a master.everyone say prove it.and once the black man proves it,he have to prove it until the day he dies.

  2. Ann Sauter on June 27, 2013 at 9:59 AM

    I think that this is a great article. It is much better and gives more information than most. I found it while trying to find a way to explain the Voting Rights Act to my daughter. It has been very helpful. The only problem I have with it is when it says blacks and whites, it many times neglects to say black men and white men. I am sure that the writers of this piece are fully aware that NO women were allowed to vote until way after men were all given the right to vote regardless of skin tone. The struggle for women’s suffrage went on and on as well with many heroes of its own, and atrocities as well (Alice Paul for one). I understand that this is on a Black Holocaust website, but I would think that the writers would want the clearest version of the truth presented. Half of the American Blacks you speak of are women as well. I thought you might want to revise this to include that.

    Thank You :
    Annie Sauter
    Oneonta, NY
    (Not far from Seneca Falls)

  3. Jean Cottrell on June 27, 2013 at 11:09 AM

    Thank you, Annie Sauter of Oneonta, NY. You have said what i would have liked to say, but you said it so much better. I would like to post some of your statement on my f/b page and will give credit to you- –
    Jean Cottrell,
    cajeangill@aol.com

  4. bob on February 27, 2014 at 12:12 PM

    this didnt help me at all

  5. jackie susan on May 21, 2014 at 8:03 AM

    i am so sorry for them but what gets me is that after all those years of slavery and now poeple are trying to do something about this

  6. Billy Bob on March 26, 2015 at 11:57 AM

    Thank you so much for the information it was very useful. – Billy Bob :D

  7. JD on July 15, 2015 at 2:02 AM

    Where is the part where the party that forced the voting rights act were Republicans? Sure Truman was a Democrat and signed it, but it was also a fact and well-known that Truman was STRONGLY against it. It should be noted that most ALL significant civil rights legislation was passed and supported by….Republicans. ONLY after this act passed and most obstacles to voting were removed did the Democratic party become the “minority-loving” party? Why? Obviously if they did not the Democratic party would have came to an end with blacks voting 100% for Republicans. See truth is Dems do not want to EVER have minority issues resolved. Why? Because they have nothing else to run on as a party. Before all the civil rights legislation was passed, they ran on racism. the only reason they know pretend to support it is because they have to. They have done a perfect job of portraying themselves as the saviors and the GOP as the devil, when it is actually the opposite. Blacks have voted for Dems for decades and they have not done a thing. Republicans done far more. Reagan on his own, made MLK a national holiday. History proves this. Dems have minorities all fooled. They deceive them to get their vote and stay in power. Period. Do blacks and latinos want real change? Do what Stephen A Smith recently said and just once….blacks people all vote for Republicans because Dems take your voted for granted and never have to earn it. you want something done though? Support Republicans who most are very strong Christians who put God first and have renewed minds and are born-again and would certainly do the right thin, despite all the fears and BS the Democrats use to demonize them. Sure we cannot let millions of illegals come into the country, I am sorry latinos, but that is just poor way to run any nation. Many nations are building fences all over the world…cannot let people just go back and forth across borders. It is nothing against a particular race, religion, etc…it is just unacceptable and no nation in the world allows this. Republicans stand on principles that are built on the rock, which should be respected and supported. They are not racist, they are the opposite. Dems just say all this stuff to scare you to get your vote. PERIOD. Absolutely true. Dems have historically been huge racists. Heck GOP could NOT win in the south! Are you blind? I hope so because foolish stupidity would be the alternative…STOP voting DEM, go to the GOP and say help us, we have been deceived by the wolf in sheeps clothing, the great deceivers…the Democratic party who fought tooth and nail against EVERY piece of civil rights legislation until the Republicans made the way….then we started voting for them and showed the Republicans no love and support for ALL they did?! Dont teach true history in schools no more. GOP got out and Dems omit all this from schools, make themselves look like saviors and good and push all their other ungodly ways while they are actually that same wolf….using the black vote and latino votes…they are snealy snakes…no doubt. keeping blacks in chains still by getting their votes to stay in power and not do a damn thing but talk like they are all about minorities. Dont do jack in reality! People are deceived and fooled and keeping their suppressors living like kings! Remember in 2012 election how the Dem leaders in Colorado talked about going and educating the idiots? meaning they can say whatever and yall will lap it up. They say one thing but do another…and yall vote for them over and over and over and over…wise up! Stop voting for ungodly suppressors who got minoroties in theor rich pockets. GOP are sensible and fair and loving and patriotic…for ALL! I promise you. All this is true. Want a united America? Get rid of the Dems and switch the the GOP and watch how things come together! Dems have NO CHOICE BUT TO DIVIDE US AND KEEP US DIVIDED! NEVER UNITE IS THEIR WHOLE MEAL TICKET TO GET MINORITY VOTES! WISE UP!

    • jlyn mitchell on September 8, 2020 at 11:33 PM

      preach

  8. Ishakamusa Meneleik I on November 4, 2015 at 9:11 PM

    This is good information to let ALL people of Alkebulan know of the struggles we have been through, and is still going through to take our rightful place in the world, as earth’s rightful rulers. In the words of the Prophet Marcus Mosiah Garvey; “Up you mighty Race, you shall accomplish what you WILL”

  9. Richard Neva on January 17, 2016 at 9:02 PM

    Voting rights in America have deteriorated over the years to the present 2016. Where voting rights were prohibited for Blacks now it is just plain useless to vote at all. Both parties have merged into a meaningless mass of rich people who make laws for the rich at the expense of everyone else. I support the only response to such a calamity and that is to not vote at all!

  10. g on February 4, 2016 at 8:35 PM

    Good job guys

  11. Johnny W on April 25, 2016 at 2:56 PM

    This is just trash. All of this info is garbage and I will never show my students this lol gtfo

    • jlyn mitchell on September 8, 2020 at 11:33 PM

      then leave

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  16. Danny W. Robinson on November 14, 2016 at 10:01 PM

    I feel the electoral college is an offspring of the Jim Crow Law that remains in power to this date. Not only are felons prevented from voting and they cannot live in certain areas, people who are not felons can vote but their votes are not counted if they vote for a democratic candidate and live in a predominately Red Voting State or visa versa. We are not a United States of Red or Blues States, We are the United States of America, Why then are all votes not counted?

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