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What the rise and fall of Jim Crow laws can teach today’s voting rights advocates

White Southern leaders established one-party rule by sharply restricting who could vote — until Black civil rights advocates pushed the federal government into action

Voting rights activist Stacey Abrams arrives to meet with President Biden at Emory University in Atlanta on March 19. (Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, the Republican-controlled Georgia legislature is expected to pass new restrictions on access to voting. Georgia is not alone. In 43 states, legislators have proposed changes in voting laws aimed at reducing the extraordinary voter turnout of 2020 — much of which attributable to Black, Latino and other often disenfranchised groups. The result: The Democratic Party holds the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time since 2010.

These proposals may well be motivated by a sentiment expressed by a delegate to Virginia’s 1901 constitutional convention, Carter Glass:

Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose … to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limitations of the Federal Constitution with the view to the elimination of every Negro who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the strength of the white electorate.

Virginia wasn’t alone in its wildly successful efforts in disenfranchising Black voters — and, despite Glass’s final phrase, in suppressing some White turnout, as well. By the late 1930s, neighboring West Virginia had a voter turnout rate of nearly 70 percent, while Virginia’s hovered around 20. An oligarchy effectively controlled Virginia state politics for several decades.

Such laws were passed over 30 years across 11 Southern states. My research finds that these political systems used poll taxes and other laws to disenfranchise both Blacks and White women. Civic organizations such as the Virginia Voters League and the League of Women Voters actively pushed back, with some success. These voting rights groups’ tactics — and failures — may interest those seeking to challenge voter suppression policies.

Disenfranchising voters in the early 20th century

From the post-Reconstruction period onward, White Southern political leaders touted largely false claims of election fraud, backed by enthusiastic supporters, to implement a wave of voting laws that established one-party rule. They did so by reducing the White electorate and making it all but impossible for Southern Blacks to vote.

Black voters faced a host of voting barriers, often violently enforced by private citizens and public officials. Although literacy tests and residency rules theoretically applied to all voters, they were imposed on Blacks. Some laws disenfranchised Blacks as a class. For instance, grandfather clauses removed literacy tests for those descended from someone who could vote before 1867. Whites-only primaries gave the state Democratic Party the ability to restrict the right to vote in the primary to Whites only. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the first in 1915 and the second in 1944.

What remained were poll taxes, in which all 11 Southern states required voters to pay a fee to register to vote. Payment rules, like other electoral regulations, were often arcane, arduous to satisfy and unevenly enforced. To many cash-strapped and desperately poor people in the South, buying food and other basic necessities came before paying for the right to vote.

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Virginia Voters League campaigned to register Black voters

Both then and now, local political activists and civic groups emerged to challenge these anti-democratic politics. The Black-led Virginia Voters League was one such group. Led by Luther Jackson, a professor at Virginia State University, the VVL conducted surveys and found that decades of White attacks on Black citizenship had led most Blacks to conclude, cynically, that “voting was white folks business.”

To Jackson and fellow members of the VVL, a “voteless people was a hopeless people.” Unlike in the Deep South, in Virginia, voting was only sometimes punished with violence, most often in rural areas. From 1941 to 1951, the VVL worked with such groups as the NAACP and the Black Virginia Teachers Association to lead a statewide campaign of local church meetings, rallies and study sessions to educate and register voters. Among other efforts, the campaign educated and encouraged voters on paying their poll tax — a process that often took years, given sometimes bewildering rules about deadlines and amounts. Study groups helped prospective voters pass the state’s arcane literacy tests. Local groups offered “registration buddies'' who would accompany a prospective voter to the hostile registrar’s office, often located in a private home.

Nevertheless, by the late 1950s, Black voter registration rates remained low, especially in the state’s rural areas. In 1964, the United States ratified the 24th Amendment, which made it unconstitutional to require a tax or fee to vote. More important, in 1965, Congress passed and the president signed the Voting Rights Act. After that, Black citizens could vote en masse, using their ballots to gain political power.

League of Women Voters worked to help poor Whites and White women to vote

Southern political elites designed laws to suppress not just Black votes, but also those of White citizens of the wrong class, sex or general outlook. As the Southern political scientist V.O. Key noted, a culture of disenfranchisement and voter suppression generally helped the “haves'' at the expense of the “have-nots.”

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By the 1940s, some Southern White women increasingly saw the division as not just a matter of race but also of gender. In conservative Southern families, any money or effort spent on satisfying poll tax requirements were often spent on husbands, not wives. Such women often joined the League of Women Voters. In Alabama, the LWV was led in part by female activists like Louella Gettys, a political scientist married to V.O. Key.

That state’s LWV began developing a largely White coalition to end the poll tax, while encouraging White women to pay their poll tax and vote. LWV chapters across the South took up the anti-poll tax campaign for White women. By 1957, before the 24th Amendment’s ratification, nine Southern states had repealed or reformed the poll tax — for Whites.

Black civil rights advocates and their allies escalated their protests and other efforts in the face of violence and, sometimes, death, with little success until their appeals reached beyond state governments. Substantive change came only when the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its accompanying federal enforcement guaranteed Blacks’ right to vote.

Lessons for today’s efforts to stop restrictions on voting

Jackson, Gettys, Abrams and many others like them have shown that local organizing can create occasional gains and even some victories. But these local efforts succeeded only partially. Then and now, the right to vote rests on vigorous federal support and protection.

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Kimberley S. Johnson (@KimberleyNYC) is a professor of social and cultural analysis and politics at New York University. She is the author of “Reforming Jim Crow: Southern Politics and State in the Age before Brown” (Oxford University Press, 2010).

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