Disenfranchisement after the Reconstruction Era

Disenfranchisement after the Reconstruction Era deals with the efforts made by Southern states of the former Confederacy at the turn of the 20th century in the United States to prevent their black citizens from registering to vote and voting. Their actions defied the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1870, which was intended to protect the suffrage of freedmen after the American Civil War.

Considerable violence and fraud had accompanied elections during Reconstruction, as the white Democrats used paramilitary groups from the 1870s to suppress black Republican voting and turn Republicans out of office. After regaining control of the state legislatures, Democrats were alarmed by a late 19th-century alliance between Republicans and Populists that cost them some elections. In North Carolina's Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 (long called a race riot by whites), white Democrats conducted a coup d'etat of city government, the only one in United States history. They overturned a duly elected biracial government and widely attacked the black community, destroying lives and property.

Ultimately, white Democrats added to previous efforts and achieved widespread disenfranchisement by law: from 1890 to 1908, Southern state legislatures passed new constitutions, constitutional amendments, and laws that made voter registration and voting more difficult. This turn of events achieved the intended result of disenfranchising most of the black citizens, as well as many poor whites in the South.

The Republican Party was nearly eliminated in the region for decades, until the late 20th century, when a wholesale party realignment took place. Southern Democrats established a one-party system based on white supremacy. As Congressional apportionment was based on the total population, the Southern white Democrats, the Southern bloc, had tremendous legislative power for decades. "Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment reduced Congressional representation for states that deny suffrage on racial grounds," but this provision was not enforced, as opponents of the Southern bloc could not overcome their political power.

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson gained an Electoral College bonus as a result of this black (Republican) disenfranchisement; he was elected as the first southern President since 1856. He was re-elected in 1916, in a much closer presidential contest. During his first term, Wilson instituted overt racial segregation throughout Federal government workplaces and established racial discrimination in hiring. During World War I, American military forces were segregated, with black soldiers poorly trained and equipped; they were often sent on suicide missions.

Disenfranchisement had other far-reaching effects in Congress, where the Democratic South gained "about 25 extra seats in Congress for each decade between 1903 and 1953." Also, the lack of a two-party system in the South meant that southern Senators and Representatives were entrenched in Congress; they gained seniority privileges and control of chairmanships of important committees, as well as leadership of the national Democratic Party. During the Great Depression, legislation establishing numerous national social programs was passed without the representation of African Americans, leading to gaps in program coverage.

In addition, because black Southerners were not listed on local voter rolls, they were automatically excluded from serving jury duty in local courts.

Racial segregation in the U.S. military was ended by Executive Order in 1948, after World War II, under President Harry S. Truman. Disenfranchisement did not end until after passage of federal civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s, which included authority to monitor elections and enforce voting rights.

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