Last time, we talked about voting and Reconstruction, and how the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments freed slaves, made them citizens, and guaranteed their right to vote. This added half-a-million black men to the voter rolls and led to the election of 2,000 black men to public office in the South. Federal troops were on hand during that period to enforce the law.
When Reconstruction ended in 1877, though, those troops were withdrawn. State and local governments then had free rein to adjust their voting laws, while violence and intimidation prevented black Southerners from exercising their rights. Lynching became commonplace, with no legal action against the killers. Historians call the period between 1877 and the 1920s The Nadir, or low point, in African-American history. Worse than slavery? In many ways, yes. During slavery, any random white person on the street could not kill a black person because they didn’t like their looks and face no consequences -because, horrible as it is, they would have been destroying a wealthy person’s property. White people who murdered freed slaves during Reconstruction had to hope they didn’t get caught by the federal authorities, because they would possibly face a military tribunal. But in the Jim Crow era, black people could be killed on a whim and, even if the killer was arrested, an all-white jury would almost never convict him.
Local and state governments, starting in the 1890s (when segregation became the norm), could look for loopholes in the 15th amendment, which said voting rights can’t be denied because of race. New laws were passed which, although they did not specifically mention race, targeted black voters. Poll taxes required a payment to vote, and most black citizens had little money (this was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court - much later). Literacy laws required you to pass a reading test to vote - it had been illegal to teach slaves to read and few freed people could. Wouldn’t these laws also affect poor whites? Potentially, but poll workers were often selective about who they applied the laws to, and there was a “grandfather clause” - even if you were illiterate and poor, if your grandfather had been a registered voter in the state you could be, too. This excluded almost all black people.
Because all these tactics did not specifically mention race, they had “plausible deniability” to claim they did not violate the 15th amendment… but it was an “open secret” what the reasons for them were. Politician James Vardaman said in 1890, “In Mississippi we have in our constitution legislated against the peculiarities of the Negro… when that device fails, we will resort to something else.” Alabama delegate John Knox said in 1901, “The convention’s goal is to establish white supremacy in the State, within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution.”
Add to those legal tactics the prevalent violence against black people, and you get a predictable end result. By 1940, in some Deep South states, only 2 percent of eligible black people were registered to vote. Voting could get you killed, after all, and the deck was so stacked that your vote probably wouldn’t be counted anyhow.
Courts of the time often upheld these laws. There is a great new book out, “Justice Deferred,” that tracks that phenomenon. It is co-written by my mentor Orville Vernon Burton (one of the country’s top scholars on Reconstruction and civil rights) and Armand Derfner, and I recommend it highly. I also recommend Burton’s book, “The Age of Lincoln.”
This, then, is the situation that existed in the South at the end of WWII. Black people were guaranteed their rights, including voting, by those constitutional amendments - but in reality, they were blocked from exercising them by corrupt local and state laws tailored specifically to exclude them, using whatever constitutional loopholes possible.
For the rest of this series of columns, we will bring it to the present.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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