The 19th century, which would see a war fought over slavery, and ultimately, voting rights, saw surprisingly little progress in terms of actual voting abilities for anyone outside the status quo at the start of the century. The 1790 Naturalization Act offered any free white person a route to citizenship through naturalization. Importantly, the act maintained the rigid definition of “citizen” in the United States, maintaining the race-based category of “white,” and the status of “free,” which would become a key term in the 19th Century.
The early part of the 19th century offered little progress for anyone outside of this designation. However, the movement for women’s rights would be intimately intertwined with the push for women’s suffrage until the early 20th century. To this day, the feminist movement engages with issues at the intersection of sex and race, and that was no different in the 1840s. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, two of the dominant figures of American feminism in the 1800s, became determined to foment a formalized womens’ rights movement after being denied ambassadorships to the World Anti-Slavery Conference in 1840(1). This would lead directly to a watershed moment, the 1848 Seneca Falls convention. As part of the convention, Cady Stanton penned The Declaration of Sentiments, a document that took inspiration from the Declaration of Independence and demanded a series of rights for women. The right to vote was among the first listed(2). The Seneca Falls convention was a success, and led to a series of meetings across the country, rallying support.
Another major moment occurred at one such meeting in 1851, in Akron, Ohio. Sojourner Truth, the former enslaved person turned abolitionist addressed the crowd. Her presence alone was controversial, as Frances Gage recalled attendees’ concerns that the movement would be “mixed up with abolition and niggers, and we shall be utterly denounced.”(3) Truth would speak to the crowd, calling out the burgeoning women’s movement’s hesitation to fully include Black women. Her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech was a call to the movement at large to reconsider their definition of womanhood to be more inclusive(4). Unfortunately, major members of the movement would eventually appeal to racist sentiments. After the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, Susan B. Anthony and others argued that white women should be given the franchise in order to counteract the new political power granted to Black men(1).
From 1861 to 1865, the nation devolved into a Civil War that was precipitated by the increasing precariousness of the Southern slavery-based social and economic structures. The South had transformed into a police state in order to control and subdue any non-conformist elements that might undermine the way of life the wealthy planter class had constructed around racism and slavery. In Masterless Men, historian Keri Leigh Merritt notes that “[t]he success of the secessionist movement was entirely dependent upon [racism].”(5) With the South’s resounding loss in the war, the Union government reclaimed the secessionist states and began federal Reconstruction.
Reconstruction involved a number of programs, but most importantly, federal dissolution of southern governments and the subsequent ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution, commonly known as the “Reconstruction Amendments”(6). The 13th Amendment formally outlawed slavery (except, importantly, as punishment for a crime), while the 14th Amendment expanded the definition of citizenship and included all newly-freed people. The 15th Amendment granted protections for the right to vote to all races, but not sexes. With these amendments, and the assistance of federal occupation, newly enfranchised Black communities saw an explosion of political action.
The 1868 presidential election was won by Ulysses Grant with a wave of support from Black Americans, who hoped for the new future promised to them by the government. Black men were voted into local, state and national government offices. Between 1868 and the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Black men were voted into US Congress 27 times. In 1872, P.B.S. Pinchback was elevated from Lt. Governor of Louisiana to be the first Black governor of any state in the Union. During Reconstruction, and particularly after, the white citizens of the south (and the nation at large) made it clear that they felt Black people didn’t deserve the vote and shouldn’t be considered citizens. To wit: while the first 27 Black congressmen took 9 years to elect, the next 27 would take another 72 years7. The second Black governor, following Pinchback? Over a century later, in 1989(6).
Before Reconstruction formally ended, one of the most insidious terrorist organizations in the world was formed on American soil. Formed in the aftermath of the Civil War, by 1867 the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) had coalesced into a formal organization with the objective of intimidating and controlling the newly empowered Black population of America. The KKK utilized harassment and extreme violence to keep as many Black people away from the polls and out of office as possible until white governments could be re-established(8). The end of formal Reconstruction coincided with the end of the formal Klan, as their former members were granted more legitimate power over the Black population of southern states, and the night riders began to trade hoods for legislative seats.
Mississippi is an excellent example of the post-Reconstruction rebirth of disenfranchisement. In 1890, the Mississippi state legislature gathered to draft a new state constitution. The core focus of the convention was clear. One of the delegates is noted as saying, “We came here to exclude the Blacks.”(9) The constitution, which would be modeled across the south, featured a number of provisions to legally disenfranchise Black people. First, the constitution included an annual poll tax of two dollars, which was a prohibitive expense in a mostly rural state where Black workers earned an average of around $37 per year(10). Literacy tests were also installed, which required voters to read and interpret a portion of the state constitution to be deemed eligible to vote. County clerks selected the passage, and would often give white voters simple, recognizable sentences while Black voters received complex technical passages.
A provision of the constitution also parrots the text of the 13th Amendment, laying out 10 crimes--including burglary and theft--that could be grounds for disenfranchisement(11). Not only was legal manipulation a common tactic of control in the antebellum south, but the relationship between crime and voting rights connects directly to felon disenfranchisement efforts in modern times. These provisions soon spread across the South, and are credited with returning White Supremacy to Mississippi and the other former secessionist states. Elements of this backlash in the late 19th century would echo well into the 20th century, when less than 1% of eligible Black voters were registered to vote in Mississippi at the time of the ratification of the Voting Rights Act of 1965(12).
As rocky as the 19th century was for most of America, the voting rights situation looked fairly similar in 1900 as it had in 1800. Despite having been finally freed from slavery, Black people across the nation were still desperate to be able to exercise the new rights they had been given. The established women’s movement struggled to reconcile the difference in aims of their white members and the Black women who wanted to be equally recognized. Much of white America carried into the 20th century the same prejudices that had marked the start of the 19th: only wealthy white men should be politically active, and repression and violence were reasonable means to maintain that status quo. The victims of this authoritarianism and their allies would bring the fight for equality into the 20th century. The struggles of these generations of activists echo into the lives of black voters and politicians to this day.
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