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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Saturday, November 04, 2006

For Dan Kenitz

And McIlheran and Dad29 and Lance Burri:
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.


Prior to passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965, southern (and some western) states maintained elaborate voter registration procedures whose primary purpose was to deny the vote to those who were not white. In the South, this process was often called the "literacy test." In fact, it was much more than a simple test, it was an entire complex system devoted to denying African-Americans (and in some area, Latinos) the right to vote.

The registration procedures, and the Registrars who enforced them, were just one part of this interlocking system of racial discrimination and oppression. [. . .]

In Alabama, a typical registration process for an African-American citizen went something like this:

In the rural counties where most folk lived, you had to go down to the courthouse to register. The Registrars Office was only open two or three days each month for a couple of hours, usually in the morning or afternoon. You had to take off work — with or without your employer's permission — to register. And if a white employer gave such permission, or failed to fire an African-American who tried to vote, he could be driven out of business by economic retaliation from the Citizens Council.

On the occasional registration day, the county Sheriff and his deputies made it their business to hang around the courthouse to discourage "undesirables" from trying to register. This meant that Black women and men had to run a gauntlet of intimidation, insults, and threats just to get to the Registration office. Once in the Registrars Office they faced hatred, humiliation, and harassment from clerks and officials.

The Alabama Application Form and oaths you had to take were four pages long. It was designed to intimidate and threaten. You had to swear that your answers to every single question were true under penalty of perjury. And you knew that the information you entered on the form would be passed on to the Citizens Council and KKK. [. . .]

In addition to completing the application and swearing the oaths, you had to pass the actual "Literacy Test" itself. Because the Movement was running "Citizenship Schools" to help folk learn how to fill out the forms and pass the test, Alabama changed the test 4 times in less than two years (1964-1965). At the time of the Selma Voting Rights campaign there were actually 100 different tests in use. In theory, each applicant was supposed to chose one at random from a big loose-leaf binder. In real life, some individual tests were easier than others and the registrar made sure that Black applicants got the hardest ones. [. . .] Your application was then reviewed by the three-member Board of Registrars — often in secret at a later date. They voted on whether or not you passed. It was entirely up to the judgment of the Board whether you passed or failed. If you were white and missed every single question they could still pass you if — in their sole judgment — you were "qualified." If you were Black and got every one correct, they could still flunk you if they considered you "unqualified."

Your name was published in the local newspaper listing of those who had applied to register. That was to make sure that all of your employers, landlords, mortgage-holders, bank loan officers, business-suppliers, and etc, were kept informed of this important event. And, of course, all of the information on your application was quietly passed under the table to the White Citizens Council and KKK for appropriate action. Their job was to encourage you to withdraw your application, — or withdraw yourself out of the county, — by whatever means they deemed necessary.
If you're stupid, they say, don't vote. Sounds familiar.

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