Grandfather Clauses, Literacy Tests, and the White Primary


After the Civil War and Reconstruction, southern states employed a range of tactics to prevent blacks from exercising their right to vote. They used violence, vote fraud, gerrymandering, literacy tests, white primaries, among others. These tactics caused registration by blacks to drop significantly. Such measures as the poll tax, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and the white primary proved especially effective in disfranchising blacks.

The poll tax, as it applied to primary elections leading to general elections for federal office, was abolished in the Twenty-fourth Amendment, ratified in 1964. Qualifications to vote based on some element of property ownership have a history that extends to colonial days. However, the poll tax was instituted in seven southern states following Reconstruction. The poll tax was a flat fee required before voting; it was often levied as high as $200 per person. The voting rights of poor blacks were disproportionately discriminated against in this method.

The U.S. Congress eventually came to view the financial qualification as an impediment to individuals’ suffrage rights. Despite Congressional sentiment, though, a constitutional amendment was necessary to abolish poll taxes, as the poll tax had previously withstood constitutional challenges in the courts. Even with the ratification of the Twenty-fourth Amendment, some states continued to look for ways to use poll taxes as an impediment to blacks’ exercising their right to vote. Finally, in the 1965 opinion in the case of Harman v. Forssenius, the Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law which had partially eliminated the poll tax as an absolute qualification for voting in federal elections. The Virginia law had given voters in federal elections the choice of either paying the tax or of filing a certificate of residence six months before the election. The Court found the latter requirement to be an unfair procedural requirement for voters in federal elections, particularly because the law was not imposed on those who otherwise agreed to pay the poll tax. The Court unanimously held the law to conflict with the Twenty-fourth Amendment as it penalized those who chose to exercise a right guaranteed them by the amendment.

There were many uneducated African Americans in the post-Civil War era. Literacy tests were used to help exclude them from the polls. However, whites found that literacy tests also would exclude large numbers of whites from becoming eligible voters since many whites could not read or write either. As a remedy, some jurisdictions adopted a “reasonable interpretation” clause; these laws gave voting registrars discretion to evaluate applicants’ performance on literacy tests. The effect was predictable: most whites passed and most blacks did not. By the beginning of the twentieth century, almost every black had been disfranchised in the South.

Grandfather clauses, a peculiarly irksome impediment to achieving voting rights for African Americans, were enacted by seven Southern states between 1895 and 1910. These laws provided that those who had enjoyed the right to vote prior to 1866 or 1867 or their lineal descendants would be exempt from educational, property, or tax requirements for voting. Because former slaves had not been granted the right to vote until the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870, these clauses effectively excluded blacks from the vote. At the same time, grandfather clauses assured the right to vote to many impoverished, ignorant, and illiterate whites. In 1915, the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared the grandfather clause unconstitutional because it violated equal voting rights guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment.

The so-called white primary was a tactic Southern whites used in which the Democratic Party was declared a private organization that could exclude whomever it pleased. State party rules or state laws that excluded blacks from the Democratic primary virtually disenfranchised all blacks (and only blacks) by keeping them out of the election that generally determined who would hold office in a state that was dominated by the Democratic Party. In 1944, the white primary was ruled unconstitutional in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Smith v. Allwright.