Race, Voting Rights, and Segregation

Rise and Fall of the Black Voter, 1868-1922

We begin our exploration of race and voting with a preliminary examination of the distribution of the black population in the United States after the Civil War. The red areas represent counties in which Black Americans were a majority of the population in 1880. The distribution of Black Americans reflects the places where slavery had been most entrenched: Eastern Virginia, North Carolina, and South 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 Black Americans in the era known as “Redemption.”

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 United States (Western counties omitted in this presentation).

Distribution of Black Americans, 1880

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Rise of the Black Vote, 1868 Congressional Elections

After the Civil War, the 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 Black Americans 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 Black Americans were concentrated.

Substantial numbers of poor Southern white Americans 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 Black Americans 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.)

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The Peak of Black Enfranchisement During Reconstruction, 1872

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 white Americans organized the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist group, to murder politically active Black Americans 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.

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The End of Reconstruction, 1876

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. 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.

Black Resistance to Disenfranchisement, 1880

By 1880, white Democrats had effectively assumed control over state and local governments throughout the South. But this did not mean that Black Americans 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 sixties between 1874-1878. But Black Americans 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.

On the Eve of Complete Black Disenfranchisement, 1900

Between 1890 and 1908, every state in the Deep South adopted a new state constitution, explicitly for the purpose of disenfranchising Black Americans. Various devices were used–poll taxes, literacy tests, arbitrary registration practices, felony disenfranchisement (for only those crimes that Black Americans disproportionately committed). Note the resulting virtual elimination of the Republican vote in South 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).

White Supremacy Entrenched, 1922

By 1922, Black disenfranchisement had been essentially complete for about 12 years. In the 1922 Congressional vote, 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 white Americans to establish and enforce white supremacy. This system was to remain unchallenged by any mass political movement for another thirty-odd years, until the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. Black voting rights were not to be secured by law for another forty-three years, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The “Solid South,” 1948

The other side of the coin of Black disenfranchisement in the South was one-party rule. As the 1948 Congressional election returns report, almost all counties in the Deep South delivered 98% or more votes to the Democrats. Matters were soon to change. Democratic President Truman was the first president since Grant to take up the cause of Black Americans when he desegregated the armed forces. The emergence of advocates of black civil rights in the national Democratic party was to set the stage for an historic realignment of party affiliations in the South. At the Presidential level, rebellious “Dixiecrats”–Southern Democrats opposed to the mild civil rights platform of the national Democratic party, ran Strom Thurmond for President, winning 39 electoral votes (South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana). This was the first indication that white Southern Democrats were willing to abandon their party over racial issues–although not yet that they were willing to join the Republican party.

Portent of an “Emerging Republican Majority,” 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forced the South to desegregate its public accommodations (public transport, restaurants, etc.) and forbad racial discrimination in employment. When President Johnson signed the Act into law, he lamented that his action would end the dominance of the Democratic Party in the South. The first indication that he was right came in the Presidential election of 1964. Although the Civil Rights Act could not have been passed without the support of moderate Republicans, overcoming the steadfast opposition of Southern Democrats, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater, opposed the Act. No racist himself, Goldwater nevertheless believed that the Act exceeded the Constitutional powers of Congress. His message made him popular in the Deep South, where he won the only states outside his home state of Arizona. (Virginia and West Virginia, missing data here, went for Johnson.) Although the election was a disaster for the Republicans, Goldwater’s sweep of the Deep South was the first indication that the Republican party could successfully bid for a majority in the South.

George Wallace and Electoral Opposition to Civil Rights, 1968

In 1968, George Wallace ran as a third-party candidate against Nixon and Humphrey, on an explicitly segregationist platform. Humphrey had been the main champion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the Senate; Nixon, while no civil rights activist, rejected an overtly racist platform. Feeling abandoned by both parties, Southern white racists flocked to Wallace’s cause, winning him the Deep South states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

Political analyst and Nixon campaigner Kevin Phillips, analyzing 1948-1968 voting trends, viewed these rebellious Southern voters as ripe for Republican picking. In The Emerging Republican Majority (Arlington House, 1969), he correctly predicted that the Republican party would shift its national base to the South by appealing to white Americans’ disaffection with liberal democratic racial and welfare policies. President Nixon shrewdly played this “Southern strategy” by promoting affirmative action in employment, a “wedge” issue that later Republicans would exploit to split the Democratic coalition of white working class and black voters. (See John Skrentny, The Ironies of Affirmative Action; University Chicago Press, 1996). This strategy soon produced the racial party alignments that prevail today.

% Distribution of Black Americans, 1980

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To grasp the significance of the racial realignment of the Republican and Democratic parties, the geographic distribution of Black Americans in 1980 provides a useful guideline. The continuing geographic legacy of slavery is evident in the high concentrations of Black Americans in the Southern “Black Belt” (so named for its rich black soil, not for its racial composition) running from Virginia to the Mississippi. However, in contrast with 1880, Black Americans are also substantially represented in the Northeast corridor from Philadelphia through N.J., New York City to Hartford; along I-94 from Detroit to Chicago, and in scattered urban areas (e.g., Buffalo, Pittsburgh). Watch these areas closely in the final map on this tour.

The “Reagan Revolution,” 1984

The success of the “Southern strategy” was made evident at the Presidential level in the 1984 election, pitting Ronald Reagan against Democrat Walter Mondale. (Georgia Democrat Jimmy Carter, the Democratic nominee for 1976 and 1980, obscured this because he was competitive in the South). Democrats had picked up votes in the South due to the re-enfranchisement of Black Americans via the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is observable in the low Republican (hence high Democratic) turnout in areas with large black populations–the Southern Black Belt and urban North. However, Democrats lost more white votes than they gained black votes–not only in the South, but in white Northern suburbs. Thomas and Mary Edsall, in Chain Reaction (W.W. Norton, 1991), argue that Republican success in the Northern suburbs showed that opposition to government programs that benefit Black Americans appealed to Northern white Americans, who, identifying crime and welfare dependency with Black Americans, were receptive to coded Republican messages (“welfare queens,” “special interests,” “quotas”) appealing to antiblack racial antipathies.


Learn more about the Geography of Race in the United States here.