The states ratified the 15th Amendment in 1870 to grant African American males the right to vote. Recalcitrant Southern Democrats refused to accept the new social system engendered by the Union's Civil War victory. These Democrats became the dominant political faction in the region after President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal troops in 1877. They created a host of mechanisms to restrict the African American vote. In 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson asked Congress to make these discriminatory devices illegal. Congress responded with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibited states from hindering African Americans from participation in the voting process.
Violence and Threats
Racism sometimes manifested as violence in the South and elsewhere. The Ku Klux Klan had emerged in 1866 to threaten African Americans attempting to exercise their newly-won freedom. By the late 19th century, the organization operated with near impunity throughout the South. U.S. The Supreme Court made it difficult for people to get law enforcement to file charges against private groups that terrorized voters. In United States vs. Harris (1882), the Court ruled the 14th Amendment protected citizens against adverse actions of state government officials. Private citizens could discriminate, even resorting to physical force, without fear of federal prosecution. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 specifically prohibits state officials and others from creating threatening environments during registration and elections .
Southern state governments often required voters to demonstrate an ability to comprehend both English and legal terminology. The Voting Rights Act made all of these “tests or devices" illegal. Now state officials cannot ask people whether they can read or write. Nor can state regulations require people to interpret the meaning of laws before voting.
Poll taxes were another means to prevent certain people from voting. These laws required voters to pay a fee when registering. The amount was cumulative. People had to pay the current amount plus any back taxes. Given that African Americans had only relatively recently been freed from centuries of unpaid labor, they possessed limited financial resources. In addition, the Southern pattern of racial segregation prevented African Americans from employment in the most lucrative trades. These taxes thus affected African Americans and similarly-situated poor whites and Mexican Americans disproportionately. Congress made all polls taxes illegal in 1965. States can no longer demand any form of payment from citizens wanting to exercise the right to vote.
Another highly subjective voting requirement was the moral character qualification. Examiners could use perceived personal flaws as a reason to reject a voter’s application. This device allowed the registrar wide latitude in deciding who could vote. In some cases, prospective voters had to get another, more respected resident to vouch for their character. The Voting Rights Act made these requirements illegal. States cannot question the moral fitness of voters.
David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.