Controlling The Voting Rolls

As I looked at the Post-Emancipation South, a common theme of “control” clearly rose out of the history books. The southern white population continually asked and answered questions related to how they would now control the Black population in the wake of slavery:
– “What are we going to do about the rising number of African-Americans on the voting rolls?”
– “How will that affect jury selections?”
– “What does this mean for the elections and at the local, state, and national level?”
– “How will we maintain the southern economy that up until this point was borne on the backs of slaves?”

These are legitimate questions… questions that, (with humility), I must recognize are questions I’d likely be asking if I were living in this place and time. We ought not to be so arrogant to think we wouldn’t have fallen under the same mindset of the day.

There’s a whole book that could be written on the Sharecropping system. It’s easy to think that slavery ended with the 13th Amendment, but it’s not that simple. I think it might be benficial for all of us to zero in on that topic more, though I’m not going to spend a lot of time writing about it today. It was certainly eye-opening for me to see the ways the South reinvented itself as soon as the Union troops left in the wake of the Civil War’s end. While you couldn’t any longer legally “own” a slave and call him property, you could certainly manipulate the labor system to force the African-American population to remain in the system, year after year, with very little hope of being able to establish themselves on their own. Essentially, slavery simply reinvented itself under this new labor system. A yearning to break out of this oppression is the primary reason why an astounding number of African Americans eventually would migrate North in 1915 and thereafter. It’s a fascinating and simultaneously discouraging example of the depravity of the human mind as we again chased the interests of self by dominating our neighbor.

Today I want to focus some energy on the voting registration and rolls of the late 1800’s in the Post-Emancipation South.

Related to controlling the voting rolls, one stark example (of many) is pretty profound. In Louisiana in 1896, over 130,000 African-Americans were now registered to vote. The black vote, which clearly would have gone to the Republican ticket, was a majority in 26 parishes in Louisiana.

Sadly, that quickly changed.

Just four years later, in 1900, the voting rolls plummeted down to just 5,300 African-Americans in Louisiana. That’s a 96% drop in just 4 years! Put that number in context with the other practices that were commonplace in the South during this time, and it’s quite easy for us to determine the causality for this decrease in black representation.

I think it’s worth educating ourselves on some of these commonplace practices.

According to a report put out by a National Historic Landmarks Program, “Violence played a large part in Republican defeats. The Ku Klux Klan, born in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865, along with other white vigilante groups such as the Knights of the White Camellia, unleashed a reign of terror throughout the South to intimidate African Americans and their white allies from voting. Klansmen inflicted beatings, committed rape and murder, and drove families from their homes. […] Throughout their ordeal, African Americans braved great risks to go to the polls, but each year their numbers dwindled. Furthermore, once Democrats returned to power, they enacted measures to restrict black suffrage, such as poll tax requirements, which fell hardest on the poor.”

In addition to the extra poll taxes and the threat of violence, other measures were used to manipulate voting results.

Under the guise of voter privacy and prevention of intimidation at the polls, the concept of the secret ballot began. Prior to the secret ballot, voters went to the polls with printed ballots distributed by political parties with their candidates’ names on them. The secret ballot system prohibited the use of this material and required voters to make their choices from the numerous names and offices printed on official ballots, a task that many of them could not perform. The concept makes sense to us today, but at this time, when the literacy rate among the majority of the black population was nearly still as low as it had ever been, it diminished the black vote.

Along a very similar vein, (much less subtle) literacy tests were used.

The report from the NHLP that I mentioned earlier went on to say the following:
“Literacy tests, if administered fairly, would have disenfranchised a considerable number of poorly educated blacks and whites. Instead, white registrars decided who passed the exam, and they used their discretion mainly against African Americans. In 1890, the Mississippi constitutional convention adopted a literacy qualification that would become the model for the region. It provided an illiterate suffrage applicant the option of enrolling if he could “understand any section of the state constitution read to him . . . or give a reasonable interpretation thereof.” In this way, voting officials denied registration to blacks but not whites, however unable to read and write the whites might have been.”

Lousiana took it even further. Upon seeing the uneducated white population affected by the literacy tests, a new idea of “Grandfather Clauses” emerged. In it’s most basic form, it created the exception to those who failed the literacy test IF they’re grandfather had previously voted in the past. Since virtually no blacks had grandfathers that were given the right to vote during this time, this presented no advantage to the African-American, but it certainly did for the white man.

I know this is a long post, but all of this continued to show me how systemic and structural the discrimination against African-Americans has been in our history. When we today see riots erupt and communities of people shouting to the rooftops to be heard, it’s easy (and comfortable) for us as white people to find a way to blame it on an individual within the “movement”. Or if there’s an altercation between a white person and a black person it’s easy to ascribe it to something interpersonal between the parties involved. While that can be part of the story, there’s a deeper history that these examples hopefully begin to help us see. These tensions emerge at a far deeper level- a structural, systemic, and subconscious level. Over the years these have become cultural norms that (people that look like me) are in danger of not even recognizing.




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