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.
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.
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.
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