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Barriers to Voting

Citizenship is not just about where someone is born, it is also about the rights and privileges one receives. Black people were originally not viewed as citizens and therefore did not have the right to vote. The Fourteenth Amendment granted former slaves formal citizenship status, but in spite of its codification, many Black people were still disenfranchised. The Fifteenth Amendment’s intent was to solve this by prohibiting federal and state governments from refusing a citizen the right to vote based on their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Because Black people had formal citizenship status and the government could not deny a citizen the right to vote because of their race, Black people should have been able to enjoy the citizenship right of voting; however, there were barriers which denied them full rights as citizens.

Racial discrimination was still rampant after the passage of those two constitutional amendments. In school districts that permitted racial segregation, Black children were denied admission from the schools white children attended. Oliver Brown’s daughter faced racial segregation in the Topeka, Kansas school system so he and twelve other local Black families sued, claiming that segregation was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 that separate but equal laws in public education were unconstitutional because racial segregation deprived Black children of equal protection guaranteed to them by the Fourteenth Amendment.[1]

Despite the Brown ruling based on the equal protection clause, Black citizens were still not treated as equal to white citizens. Policies such as literacy tests and poll taxes made it almost impossible for Black citizens to vote. Many Black Americans were not given equal access to education or employment opportunities, so requiring literacy tests and charging a poll tax disproportionately targeted them.

Seemingly, of this knowledge, in Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections the Supreme Court ruled in 1959 that literacy tests were not racially motivated because requiring voters to be literate was race-neutral. The plaintiff argued that requiring literacy tests in order to register to vote violated the Constitution because there were inequities in education between the races which made the tests much harder for Black citizens. Louise Lassiter was a Black woman who failed the literacy test, despite the fact that she did know how to read, because the registrar that administered her test deemed her illiterate due to her mispronunciation of the word ‘indictment.’ Having failed at the discretion of the registrar, she was unable to register to vote. In the opinion written by Justice William O. Douglas, he justified the ruling by arguing that literacy tests were applied equally to all races and that having the ability to read had some relation to being able to effectively use the ballot.[2] What the court did not realize was that in actuality literacy tests were administered for the purpose of disenfranchising Black people and that their decision gave rise to further discriminatory practices.

The Lassiter decision was overruled when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act outlawed literacy tests and other similar methods of racial voter suppression that were dominant primarily in the south. The purpose of this legislation was to enforce the equal protection of the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment and the voting rights guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment. The act also prohibited racial discrimination in voting.[3]

There was a disparity between the Brown decision and the Lassiter decision. Brown acknowledged the racialization of education and how access to education was unequal because of racial segregation. In Lassiter, the court did not acknowledge how educational access was related to literacy because they ruled that literacy tests were race-neutral. The justices ignored that up until 1957 North Carolina had a grandfather clause that allowed men to be exempted from the literacy test if they or their descendants were registered to vote before 1867. This means most whites did not have to take the literacy test and the only motivation to have the literacy test would be to disenfranchise Black people because they could not vote in 1867.[4]

Catherine Prendergast’s work titled Literacy and Racial Justice: the Politics of Learning After Brown v Board of Education details how segregation restricted Black Americans access to education which caused them to have limited access to literacy. Racial justice and literacy were connected. Prendergast argues that the Brown decision acknowledged that there was racialization within the education system and that this linked public education to citizenship.[5]

There was a formal racist structure that prevented Black citizens from voting. Between 1890 and 1910, all southern states rewrote their constitutions to include avenues that minimized the Black vote. This included tactics such as literacy tests and the poll tax. These laws were not ruled as unconstitutional because there was no explicit mention of Black people.[6] However, while it may not have been explicit in the law, it was clear that discrimination was the main motivator. The Journal of Negro History reported in 1944 that segregationist Senator Carter Glass of Virginia was transparent about his motivations when he stated “it will be discrimination within the letter of the law… Discrimination! Why, that is precisely what we propose.”[7] Senator Glass was able to promote legislation that disenfranchised Black citizens because there was no explicit mention of race in the proposed laws.

These institutional barriers to voting were prevalent well into the fifties and still after the Brown decision. Black citizens did not have equal access to the ballot box. For instance, in the 1950 census, Macon County, Alabama, had a population of 30,561 with 84 percent being Black. But in 1958, 3,102 white citizens were qualified to vote while only 1,218 Black citizens qualified to vote.[8] This large disparity was common throughout the rest of the south, and shows how white Democrats were able to dominate in the south.

There would not have been large sums of the Black Americans excluded from the electorate if there was an equal application of the law. Because there was a high rate of illiteracy among the Black population due to oppression and poverty, literacy tests were utilized in order to disenfranchise Black people. While in theory literacy tests could have also prevented illiterate whites from voting, this was often not the case. Escape clauses were written into the law to protect uneducated white voters. White registrars would accommodate illiterate whites by reading sections of the Constitution outloud to them,[9] or by asserting that they were of good character. Black citizens did not receive this type of treatment from the registrars. The questions they received for voter registration tests were not indicative of their ability to read a ballot. For instance, a Florida registrar once asked a Black applicant how many windows the White House had and then denied him the right to vote when he did not have an answer.[10]

It was possible for Black applicants to appeal the denial by going to court, but this was a lengthy process and more likely than not the election would be over before the court scheduled a date. White citizens did not have to worry about the answer to these questions or the tests themselves because the color of their skin was deemed as sufficient evidence that they were literate.[11] These tests were effective at disenfranchising Black citizens because they were not provided with the same rights or opportunities that white citizens received.

[1] Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 349 U.S. 294, 1955. [2] Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections, 360 U.S. 45, 1959. [3] Bridgett King, Voting Rights in America, Primary Documents in Context (Santa Barbra, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2019), 111. [4] Ibid, 166. [5] Catherine Prendergast, Literacy and Racial Justice: the Politics of Learning after Brown v. Board of Education (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), 1. [6] Steven Lawson, Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South: 1949-1969 (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 1999), 11. [7] Carter Glass in William Brewer, “The Poll Tax and Poll Taxers”, The Journal of Negro History 29, no. 3 (1944), 260. [8] Lawson, 209. [9] Lawson, 11. [10] Stetson Kennedy, Jim Crow Guide to the USA: The Laws, Customs and Etiquette Governing the Conduct of Nonwhites and Other Minorities As Second-Class Citizens (Tuscaloosa, Ala: University Alabama Press, 2011), 156. [11] Ibid, 155.


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