The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some call voting restrictions upheld by Supreme Court ‘Jim Crow 2.0.’ Here’s the ugly history behind that phrase.

Civil rights demonstrators outside the White House on March 12, 1965. (Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress)
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When northern newspapers complained about Mississippi’s new state constitution in 1890, charging that new anti-fraud voting restrictions were meant to disenfranchise Black voters, a White state senator defended it, saying, “I deny that the educational test was intended to exclude Negroes from voting … That more Negroes would be excluded is true … but that is not our fault.”

By 1903, as the “Mississippi Plan” spread throughout the South, Mississippi Gov. James Vardaman was less discreet about it. “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter,” he said. “Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the n----- from politics.”

More than a century later, the Supreme Court has upheld new voting restrictions in Arizona, after a lower court said the restrictions discriminated against minority voters. In a 6-to-3 opinion critics say is reminiscent of the Jim Crow era, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. acknowledged that these restrictions could have a disproportionate effect on 0.5 percent of Black, Latino and Native American voters. Though Joe Biden beat President Donald Trump by 0.4 percentage point in Arizona and 0.3 points in Georgia, Alito argued that 0.5 percent of voters was too “small in absolute terms” to outweigh the state’s interests in protecting the vote from fraud.

He fought for Black voting rights after the Civil War. He was almost killed for it.

The decision Thursday paves the way for other states that are considering — or have already passed — new voting restrictions in the wake of Trump’s false claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. The rush of new laws have earned the moniker “Jim Crow 2.0” from voting rights activists.

Voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams said on April 20 she believes there are components of the Georgia election laws that are racist during a Senate hearing. (Video: The Washington Post)

But what about Jim Crow 1.0? How did white supremacist lawmakers get around the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed Black men the right to vote, and later, the 19th Amendment, which should have secured the vote for Black women? Here’s a look at their legal and illegal methods.

Poll taxes

Nearly every Southern state instituted poll taxes during the Jim Crow era. In most states, the tax was “just” one or two dollars (the equivalent of about $30 to $60 today) — an amount easy enough for middle- and upper-class voters to pay, but much harder for the poor, then and now. The tax disproportionately excluded Black voters. Plus, a lot of these laws required the tax be paid well before voting day and to produce multiple receipts, extra steps that made voting even harder.

That was the case in Ocoee, Fla., in 1920, where a local White judge held training sessions for potential Black voters on how to pay the poll tax beforehand and prove it on Election Day.

Poll taxes were banned in 1964 at the federal level by the 24th Amendment, and at the state level by the Supreme Court in 1966.

Literacy tests

Laws requiring literacy tests were an even bigger challenge to overcome. Again, they disproportionately affected Black voters, many of whom were denied education while they were enslaved. And even if they could read, the laws were still rigged against them. In Mississippi, the county clerk would demand a passage to be read from the state constitution and then decide if the prospective voter passed. For Black voters, they would read dense, difficult sections; for White voters, easier ones.

That’s what happened to Fannie Lou Hamer in 1962, when she attempted to register to vote in Indianola, Miss. Hamer, 44 at the time, had only recently learned from organizers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that Black people were even eligible to vote. The first two times she took the literacy test, she failed, prompting her to tell the clerk, “You’ll see me every 30 days till I pass.”

Civil rights crusader Fannie Lou Hamer defied men — and presidents — who tried to silence her

‘Grandfather’ clauses

Lawmakers argued that since poll taxes and literacy tests could also prevent White people from registering to vote, the laws were not racist. But by adding “grandfather” clauses, exempting anyone whose grandfather could vote from taxes and tests, poor or illiterate Whites had a way around the law.

The Supreme Court unanimously (with one abstention) struck down grandfather clauses in 1915, after Oklahoma officials who enforced it were prosecuted in federal court. Chief Justice Edward Douglass White said the clauses were “repugnant to the prohibitions of the 15th Amendment.”

Whites-only primaries

Because political parties were not government entities, their primaries did not have to abide by the 14th (equal protection) or 15th amendments, so in many counties and states, Southern Democrats held Whites-only primaries. Since White voters were overwhelmingly Southern Democrats, whoever won the primary was all but guaranteed to win the election.

A federal court struck down Whites-only primaries in Georgia, spurring Maceo Snipes, a Black man who had just returned from fighting in World War II, to cast a ballot in a Democratic primary on July 17, 1946. He was the only Black person in Taylor County, Ga., to do so.

That’s where the last method comes in.

Intimidation and violence

If White supremacists’ legal moves failed, there was always violence, and the threat of it, to keep Black voters from exercising their rights.

After the federal court decision in 1946, White politicians in Georgia had warned “wise Negroes will stay away from White folks’ ballot boxes.” Within days of Snipes voting in the primary, he was shot on his front porch by a White man. At the hospital, he was denied medical care because of his race and died of his injuries. The man who admitted to shooting him was acquitted.

And even though the county clerk said Hamer failed her literacy test, just her attempt to register in Mississippi in 1962 led to frightening retaliation. She was harassed by police on her way home, where her husband was fired from his job and she had to flee for her life. Someone fired 16 bullets into the house where she was staying; fortunately, no one was hurt.

Hamer persisted and passed her literacy test on the third attempt. Then she was told she still couldn’t vote until she could provide two poll tax receipts.

And in Ocoee in 1920, when Black men and women showed up to vote with their poll tax receipts, White residents retaliated, burning down Black homes and churches and chasing Black families out of town. One of the voters, July Perry, was lynched, and his mutilated body was strung up in front of the home of the White judge who had trained him.

Nowadays, these “Jim Crow 1.0” methods have all been struck down or banned. And for decades, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prevented many local officials from imposing any other voting restrictions without first getting “pre-clearance” from the Justice Department. But the Supreme Court struck down the pre-clearance provision in 2013, arguing that it had worked so well it was no longer necessary. Thursday’s decision by the Supreme Court further weakens the Voting Rights Act.

Read more Retropolis:

The ‘Mississippi Plan’ to keep Blacks from voting in 1890: ‘We came here to exclude the Negro’

A Black WWII veteran voted in Georgia in 1946. He was lynched for it.

White supremacists attacked Johnny Cash for marrying a ‘Negro’ woman. But was his first wife Black?

A White mob unleashed the worst Election Day violence in U.S. history in Florida a century ago

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