Reconstruction and the Civil War Amendments
Before the Civil War the United States Constitution did not provide specific protections for voting. Qualifications for voting were matters which neither the Constitution nor federal laws governed. At that time, although a few northern states permitted a small number of free black men to register and vote, slavery and restrictive state laws and practices led the franchise to be exercised almost exclusively by white males.
Shortly after the end of the Civil War Congress enacted the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867, which allowed former Confederate States to be readmitted to the Union if they adopted new state constitutions that permitted universal male suffrage. The 14th Amendment, which conferred citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, was ratified in 1868.
In 1870 the 15th Amendment was ratified, which provided specifically that the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude. This superseded state laws that had directly prohibited black voting. Congress then enacted the Enforcement Act of 1870, which contained criminal penalties for interference with the right to vote, and the Force Act of 1871, which provided for federal election oversight.
As a result, in the former Confederate States, where new black citizens in some cases comprised outright or near majorities of the eligible voting population, hundreds of thousands — perhaps one million — recently-freed slaves registered to vote. Black candidates began for the first time to be elected to state, local and federal offices and to play a meaningful role in their governments.
The extension of the franchise to black citizens was strongly resisted. Among others, the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and other terrorist organizations attempted to prevent the 15th Amendment from being enforced by violence and intimidation. Two decisions in 1876 by the Supreme Court narrowed the scope of enforcement under the Enforcement Act and the Force Act, and, together with the end of Reconstruction marked by the removal of federal troops after the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877, resulted in a climate in which violence could be used to depress black voter turnout and fraud could be used to undo the effect of lawfully cast votes.
Once whites regained control of the state legislatures using these tactics, a process known as “Redemption,” they used gerrymandering of election districts to further reduce black voting strength and minimize the number of black elected officials. In the 1890s, these states began to amend their constitutions and to enact a series of laws intended to re-establish and entrench white political supremacy.
Such disfranchising laws included poll taxes, literacy tests, vouchers of “good character,” and disqualification for “crimes of moral turpitude.” These laws were “color-blind” on their face, but were designed to exclude black citizens disproportionately by allowing white election officials to apply the procedures selectively. Other laws and practices, such as the “white primary,”, attempted to evade the 15th Amendment by allowing “private” political parties to conduct elections and establish qualifications for their members.
As a result of these efforts, in the former Confederate states nearly all black citizens were disenfranchised and removed from by 1910. The process of restoring the rights taken stolen by these tactics would take many decades.