“Blacks continued to endure abuse and risk bodily harm in order to try to cast ballots. White southerners were also all too aware that just because the Supreme Court had drifted away from freedmen’s rights, this was no guarantee that they might not one day drift back again,” Goldstone wrote. “For white society to permanently breathe easy, they would need to find a way to imbed in law what was practiced in the community.”
Lawrence Goldstone: Judiciary reform is not revenge
As the historian C. Vann Woodward wrote in 1955 in The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Democrats embraced a violent politics of white identity in order to splinter any potential class alliances between poor whites and Blacks.
“The leaders of the movement resorted to an intensive propaganda of white supremacy, Negrophobia, and race chauvinism,” Woodward wrote. “Such a campaign preceded and accompanied disenfranchisement in each state. In some of them it had been thirty years or more since the reign of the carpetbagger, but the legend of Reconstruction was revived, refurbished, and relived by the propagandists as if it were an immediate background of the current crisis.”
States, the laboratories of democracy—or, in this case, its suppression—experimented with different methods that would disenfranchise Black voters while being superficially race-neutral enough to pass under the blind eye of the justices on the Supreme Court, who were willing to countenance the most blatant forms of discrimination so long as they did not announce their obvious purpose.
There were grandfather clauses, which exempted those who had been able to vote prior to the Civil War and their descendants from the new, onerous voting requirements. There were poll taxes and property requirements, which dispossessed Black men could not afford. There were literacy tests, which could take the form of unanswerable questions in the event that a prospective Black voter knew how to read. All of these provisions were aimed at disenfranchising Black voters, but technically such measures didn’t mention race at all. After Williams, southern states were free to employ all of these methods: The Constitution was no obstacle to white supremacy in the South.
There were also explicitly racist methods of disenfranchisement, such as the exclusion of nonwhite voters from Democratic primaries in much of the one-party South. The white primary would pass constitutional muster well into the 20th century, under the rationale that the Fourteenth Amendment applied only to state actions, not private actors. But “race neutral” methods worked well enough to disenfranchise Black Americans even without white primaries.
These methods were swept away by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which not only enforced the Fifteenth Amendment’s protections against racial discrimination in voting but also placed jurisdictions with a history of such measures under federal supervision to keep them from being reimposed.