Geography of Race in the United States/Race, voting rights and segregation/Rise and fall of the black voter, 1868-1922

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Distribution of Blacks in the U.S., 1880[edit | edit source]

We begin our exploration of race and voting with a preliminary examination of the distribution of the black population in the U.S. after the Civil War. The red areas represent counties in which blacks were a majority of the population in 1880. The distribution of blacks reflects the places where slavery had been most entrenched: eastern Virginia and N. Carolina, S. Carolina, the "black belt" running across Georgia and Alabama, and the Mississippi River. Watch these regions carefully in subsequent maps, for they tell the story of the rise of the black voter during Reconstruction, and the systematic disenfranchisement of blacks in the era known as "Redemption."

Percent Black by County, 1880

These maps were produced using The Great American History Machine (ePress Project, 1994), which enables the user to map census variables and election returns by county from the 19th century through 1984. The unnatural break points in the legend reflect the software's programming: each range (e.g., 0.53-18.17% for green) covers 1/5 of all counties in the U.S. (Western counties omitted in this presentation).

Rise of the Black Vote, 1868 Congressional Elections[edit | edit source]

After the Civil War, the Radical Republican Congress knew that federal laws were needed to secure the right of black men to vote in the South. (Women of any race did not enjoy a Constitutional right to vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.) Hence, in 1867 Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act, which brought the vote to black men in 10 former Confederate states. The first year Southern blacks were able to participate in federal elections was 1868. This map of Republican voter turnout illustrates the effectiveness of black enfranchisement. In most of the South, majority turnout for Republicans (red and yellow) is a fair indicator of black enfranchisement, since Republicans could not win elections in most of the South without overwhelming black support. Note the high Republican vote in the same areas in the South where blacks were concentrated.

Percent vote for Republican Party candidates, 1868 (congress)

Substantial numbers of poor Southern whites from the hills west and north of the black belt also supported the Republican party, reflecting the class conflict of poor farmers against rich plantation owners in the black belt. East Tennessee was a stronghold of Unionism during the war, and of Republican party power after the war, due to the white vote. (Almost all blacks in Tennessee lived in the western part of the state; high Republican turnout in west Tennessee therefore reflects black as well as white voting power.)

The peak of black enfranchisement during Reconstruction, 1872[edit | edit source]

The number of black state and federal legislators in the South peaked in 1872 at about 320 —a level never surpassed even by 1992 (J. Morgan Kousser, Colorblind Injustice, UNC Press 1999, p. 19). This success reflected the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, which prohibited denial of the franchise on account of race, and federal actions to enforce the Amendment. Southern whites organized the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist group, to murder politically active blacks and intimidate their supporters. President Grant, using the enforcement powers derived from the 15th Amendment, engaged in a vigorous campaign of federal prosecutions to shut down the KKK in South Carolina. Note the particularly high Republican turnout there, reflecting high levels of black enfranchisement.

Percentage vote for Republican President 1872 (Ulysses S. Grant)

The End of Reconstruction, 1876[edit | edit source]

By 1873, Republicans were losing their enthusiasm for protecting black rights. Despite the presence of federal troops, sent by President Grant to protect black voting rights, white Democrats effectively resumed campaigns of violence and intimidation to suppress the Republican vote, with clearly observable effects depicted in this map. The formal end to Reconstruction was brought about in the disputed 1876 Presidential election. The Democratic candidate, Tilden, won the popular vote, but neither candidate initially had a majority of electoral votes due to disputes over returns in Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina—the only states in which federal troops were still stationed in 1876. Although they were not numerous enough to stop white intimidation of black voters, the troops were considered an affront by white Democrats. In back room negotiations, Democrats conceded the disputed election returns to Hayes in return for his agreement to withdraw the remaining 3000 federal troops, thereby putting a formal end to Reconstruction and assuring Democratic control, based on a platform of white supremacy and black disenfranchisement, throughout the South. To learn more, see Hayes v. Tilden by Harper's Weekly.

Percentage votes for Republican President 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes)

Black Resistance to Disenfranchisement, 1880[edit | edit source]

By 1880, white Democrats had effectively assumed control over state and local governments throughout the South. But this did not mean that blacks simply acquiesced in the Democratic campaigns to disenfranchise them. Even in 1880, despite massive violence and fraud at the ballot box, significant black turnout can be observed in the high Republican returns from a few majority black counties. The number of Southern black legislators plummeted into the 60s between 1874-1878. But blacks held on in a few places. Virtually complete disenfranchisement had to await the passage of disenfranchising laws in the 1880s (poll taxes, literacy tests, property qualifications, arbitrary registration practices), and new state constitutions in the South in the 1890s and early 1900s.

Percentage votes for Republican President, 1880 (James A. Garfield)

The high Republican turnouts in East Tennessee and western North Carolina reflect not black voting power, but the support of poor mountain whites for the Republican party. The same measures explicitly designed to disenfranchise blacks were to have a devastating impact on the turnout of poor whites, many of whom also could not pass literacy tests or afford to pay poll taxes. "Grandfather clauses" enabled otherwise disqualified whites to register to vote (if they had an ancestor qualified to vote in 1867, the last year before blacks got the franchise), but these clauses shortly expired.

On the eve of complete Black disenfranchisement, 1900[edit | edit source]

Between 1890 and 1908, every state in the Deep South adopted a new state constitution, explicitly for the purpose of disenfranchising blacks. Various devices were used—poll taxes, literacy tests, arbitrary registration practices, felony disenfranchisement (for only those crimes that blacks disproportionately committed). Note the resulting virtual elimination of the Republican vote in S. Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. By comparison, Alabama and Georgia appear anomalous in the region—until one realizes that Alabama was not to pass its new state constitution until 1901, and Georgia not until 1908.

To learn more, see J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restrictions and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910 (Yale University Press, 1974).

Percentage vote for Republican President, 1900 (William McKinley)

White turnout also plummeted due to disenfranchisement. Outside of N.C., Tennessee, and Arkansas, a minority of whites turned out in the post-disenfranchisement elections between 1900-1910. In the 1904 presidential election, only 29% of all adult males in the South voted, compared to 65% in the North. Kousser argues that the disenfranchisement of poor whites was not a mere unintended consequence of laws primarily intended to exclude blacks: support for disenfranchisement was strongest among rich white Democratic farmers in the black belt, often opposed by poor whites, and rationalized by antidemocratic ideas that equated poverty and illiteracy with political incompetence. Not just race and class but partisan interests underwrote disenfranchisement: the Democratic party was the main force behind disenfranchisement, and the major restrictive laws were passed at times of significant Republican and Populist challenge to Democratic dominance.

White Supremacy Entrenched, 1922[edit | edit source]

By 1922, black disenfranchisement had been essentially complete for about 12 years. In this map of the 1922 Congressional vote, notice that virtually all counties in the Deep South reported returns for Republicans below 3%. This was not so much because the Republican party stood for black rights—it had long since abandoned that cause—but because the Democratic party was the chosen vehicle of whites to establish and enforce white supremacy. This system was to remain unchallenged by any mass political movement for another 30-odd years, until the birth of the civil rights movement. Black voting rights were not to be secured by law for another 43 years, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Percentage vote for Republican Party Candidates, 1922 (Congress)