Voting Restrictions

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    Just as whites in Southern states were passing laws establishing legal segregation barriers, they also began to develop legal justifications for denying blacks their ballots. North Carolina began this trend in 1889 by demanding very precise information about a potential voter's age and birthplace, information many former slaves did not have.

    White Mississippians however, quickly took the lead in innovative ways to circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment. They came up with the poll tax, requiring people to have paid it for the previous two years before voting. Since most African Americans were poor and confined to a credit economy, this measure greatly restricted access to the voting booth. In some states, this became a cumulative poll tax; voters had to pay off all their taxes before voting. Once a person got behind, it was virtually impossible for him to catch back up again. This also ended the eligibility of many poor whites as well.

    Other devices included the grandfather clause, which said that a person was eligible to vote if his grandfather had been eligible to vote. In the 1890s, that applied almost exclusively to whites. In the South, where the Democratic Party was the only game in town, the party primaries represented the real electoral battles. In another move designed to deny black voices, the Democratic Party made their primaries for whites only. 

    The literacy tests and understanding clauses were the most imaginative ways to exclude black voters while keeping white voters eligible. Aspiring voters had to read a passage of the state constitution selected by the county registrar and explain its significance to the registrar's satisfaction. The idea, of course, was that whites could "satisfactorily" answer any question while blacks could do nothing to appease their inquisitor. Edward Ayers explains the whites' attitude by offering the contemporaneous quote, "if every Negro in Mississippi was a graduate of Harvard, and had been elected as class orator . . . he would not be as well fitted to exercise the right of suffrage