How Grandfather Clauses Disenfranchised African American Voters

A historic marker in Selma, Alabama, commemorating the enactent of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
A plaque in Selma, Alabama, commemorates the U.S. Congress approving the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

Grandfather clauses were statutes that seven Southern states implemented in the 1890s and early 1900s to prevent African Americans from voting. The statutes allowed any person who had been granted the right to vote before 1867 to continue voting without needing to take literacy tests, own property, or pay poll taxes. The name “grandfather clause” comes from the fact that the statute also applied to the descendants of anyone who had been granted the right to vote before 1867.

Since most African Americans were enslaved prior to the 1860s and did not have the right to vote, grandfather clauses prevented them from voting even after they had won their freedom from slavery.

How the Grandfather Clause Disenfranchised Voters

The 15th Amendment of the Constitution was ratified on February 3, 1870. This amendment stated that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In theory, this amendment gave African Americans the right to vote.

However, black Americans had the right to vote in theory only. The Grandfather clause stripped them of their right to vote by requiring them to pay taxes, take literacy tests or constitutional quizzes, and overcome other barriers simply to cast a ballot. White Americans, on the other hand, could vote get around these requirements if they or their relatives had already had the right to vote prior to 1867—in other words, they were "grandfathered in" by the clause.

Southern states such as Louisiana, the first to institute the statutes, enacted grandfather clauses even though they knew these statutes violated the U.S. Constitution, so they put a time limit on them in hopes that they could register white voters and disenfranchise black voters before the courts overturned the laws. Lawsuits can take years, and Southern lawmakers knew that most African Americans could not afford to file lawsuits related to grandfather clauses.

Grandfather clauses weren’t just about racism. They were also about limiting the political power of African Americans, most of whom were loyal Republicans because of Abraham Lincoln. Most Southerners at the time were Democrats, later known as Dixiecrats, who had opposed Lincoln and the abolition of slavery.

But grandfather clauses weren’t limited to Southern states and didn’t just target Black Americans. Northeast states like Massachusetts and Connecticut required voters to take literacy tests because they wanted to keep immigrants in the region from voting, since these newcomers tended to back Democrats during a time when the Northeast leaned Republican. Some of the South’s grandfather clauses may have even been based on a Massachusetts statute.

The Supreme Court Weighs In: Guinn v. United States

Thanks to the NAACP, the civil rights group established in 1909, Oklahoma's grandfather clause faced a challenge in court. The organization urged a lawyer to fight the state’s grandfather clause, implemented in 1910. Oklahoma’s grandfather clause stated the following:

“No person shall be registered as an elector of this state or be allowed to vote in any election held herein, unless he be able to read and write any section of the Constitution of the state of Oklahoma; but no person who was, on January 1, 1866, or any time prior thereto, entitled to vote under any form of government, or who at that time resided in some foreign nation, and no lineal descendant of such person, shall be denied the right to register and vote because of his inability to so read and write sections of such Constitution.”

The clause gave white voters an unfair advantage, since the grandfathers of black voters had been enslaved prior to 1866 and were, thus, barred from voting. Moreover, enslaved African Americans were typically forbidden to read, and illiteracy remained a problem (both in the white and black communities) well after slavery was abolished.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided unanimously in the 1915 case Guinn v. United States that grandfather clauses in Oklahoma and Maryland violated the constitutional rights of African Americans. That’s because the 15th Amendment declared that U.S. citizens should have equal voting rights. The Supreme Court’s ruling meant that grandfather clauses in states such as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia were also overturned.

Despite the high court’s finding that grandfather clauses were unconstitutional, Oklahoma and other states continued to pass laws that made it impossible for African Americans to vote. The Oklahoma Legislature, for example, responded to the Supreme Court ruling by passing a new law that automatically registered the voters who’d been on the rolls when the grandfather clause was in effect. Anyone else, on the other hand, had only between April 30 and May 11, 1916, to sign up to vote or they would lose their voting rights forever.

That Oklahoma law remained in effect until 1939 when the Supreme Court overturned it in Lane v. Wilson, finding that it infringed on the rights of voters outlined in the Constitution. Still, black voters throughout the South faced huge barriers when they tried to vote.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

Even if African Americans managed to pass a literacy test, pay a poll tax, or complete other hurdles, they could be punished for voting in other ways. After slavery, large numbers of blacks in the South worked for white farm owners as tenant farmers or sharecroppers in exchange for a small cut of the profits from the crops grown. They also tended to live on the land they farmed, so voting as a sharecropper could mean not only losing one’s job but also being forced out of one’s home if the landowner opposed black suffrage.

In addition to potentially losing their employment and housing if they voted, African Americans who engaged in this civic duty could find themselves targets of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. These groups terrorized black communities with night rides during which they would burn crosses on lawns, set homes alight, or force their way into black households to intimidate, brutalize, or lynch their targets. But courageous blacks exercised their right to vote, even if meant losing everything, including their lives.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated many of the barriers that black voters in the South encountered, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. The act also led to the federal government overseeing voter registration. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is credited with finally making the 15th Amendment a reality.

Sources

  • “Along the Color Line: Political,” The Crisis, volume 1, n. 1, November 11, 1910.
  • Brenc, Willie. "The Grandfather Clause (1898-1915)." BlackPast.org.
  • Greenblatt, Alan. “The Racial History Of The ‘Grandfather Clause.’” NPR 22 October, 2013.
  • Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. Basic Books, 2009.
  • United States; Killian, Johnny H.; Costello, George; Thomas, Kenneth R. The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation : Analysis of Cases Decided by the Supreme Court of the United States to June 28, 2002. Government Printing Office, 2004.