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How Power Grabs in the South Erased Reforms After Reconstruction

State constitutions were rewritten to suppress the votes of newly enfranchised African Americans.

The late 19th century was a period of political whiplash for the south. Black men were guaranteed the right to vote, black candidates won positions and started to change state governments—and then white reactionaries staged power grabs to regain control and rewrote their constitutions to suppress the black vote.

During the Reconstruction period of just under 10 years, black legislators and their Republican and southern allies were able to push through changes designed to democratize state governments. To a limited extent, this involved breaking up state legislatures’ authority. But the changes would be short-lived.

A cartoon depicting reconstructed legislature, illustrated by Captain B. H. Screws.

A cartoon depicting reconstructed legislature, illustrated by Captain B. H. Screws.

In 1868, South Carolina became the first state to have a majority-black legislature. But the fact that black men were running the state didn’t sit well with southerners, who began circulating images of the South Carolina legislature meant to frighten each other. One such image in Princeton University Library’s collection portrayed the black legislators as illiterate men who paid no taxes, yet had the power to tax the white people of the state.

Before Reconstruction, most southern state legislatures had the sole power to appoint judges. But at North Carolina’s 1868 Constitutional convention, the state gave voters the power to directly elect judges. One of the delegates who voted in favor of it was Abraham Galloway, a former fugitive slave, who explained why this issue was so important for black voters.

“[Galloway] said…that the Judiciary in New Hanover [County] was a bastard born in sin and secession,” reported the convention notes. “In their eyes, it was a crime to be a black or loyal man. He said that the Judge of the Criminal Court had already sent men to the work-house merely to prevent their voting upon the ratification of the Constitution.”

Some southern governors also gained a more power during Reconstruction (for most of the 19th century, U.S. governors didn’t have a lot of authority). Having the ability to deploy the state militia “was a very, very important power and responsibility given the fact that in many localities in the south new black voters were being intimidated by white vigilantes,” says Steven Hahn, a history professor at New York University and author of A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration.

Governor Powell Clayton.

Governor Powell Clayton.

Arkansas Governor Powell Clayton effectively used his control over the state’s militia to suppress the newly-formed Ku Klux Klan. Between November 1868 and March 1869, Clayton declared martial law and deployed a militia of formerly enslaved men and white Union sympathizers to fight and arrest KKK members. When martial law ended, the General Assembly passed a law outlawing the Klan.

But all of these gains for black men—voting rights, representation and state protection from white vigilantes—were short lived. In 1877, the year Reconstruction officially ended, Georgia took away voters’ right to select judges and gave it back to the legislature. Southern state governments also found ways to disenfranchise black men or intimidate them from voting, thus preventing them from continuing to vote for black representatives.

“Everyone recognized what was going on, but in part at the national level the Republican party had pretty much given up on the south,” Hahn says. “The Republican party recognized that it could continue to rule the country without getting electoral votes in the south.” Black people in the south organized against this disenfranchisement, but often faced intimidation and violence.

Portrait of the first black senator, H. M. Revels of Mississippi (far left) and black representatives of Congress during the Reconstruction Era, circa 1870-1875.

Portrait of the first black senator, H. M. Revels of Mississippi (far left) and black representatives of Congress during the Reconstruction Era, circa 1870-1875.

By the 1890s, the now all-white state legislatures amended their constitutions to formally implement voting barriers, which they realized was the most effective way for them to maintain power. For those who have been following 21st century politics, the concept of states rewriting their laws to favor one group or party probably doesn’t seem new. Nor does the concept of voter suppression, which several American states have been accused of practicing in 2018.

“The main things that southern legislatures did in order to make sure that Republicans or African Americans didn’t get into power is to make sure they didn’t vote,” Hahn says. “All this stuff has been part of American politics all along.”

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