To really understand the current fight over voting rights and over restoring the protections of the Voting Rights Act, you have to understand what life was like before the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
African Americans and other racial and ethnic minority Americans were guaranteed the right to vote by the 15th Amendment, but in the decades between Reconstruction from 1865 to 1877 (when hundreds of former slaves were elected to Southern state legislatures) and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, states and local governments used various tactics to make it inconvenient, intimidating, or impossible for them to cast ballots.
Ben Tillman, a South Carolina senator from 1895 to 1918, described the campaign for black disenfranchisement after Reconstruction, in which he was an eager participant, as follows: “We have done our level best. We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate every last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”
While some of these restrictive laws were struck down individually by the 1960s, it wasn’t until the passage of the VRA that there was a nationwide tool to get rid of them.
Here are a few of the ways lawmakers made it difficult or impossible for African Americans to vote.
Poll taxes: In several states, voters had to prove they’d paid special taxes for voting before they were allowed to cast a ballot. These taxes made voting out of reach for poor people, including people of color. Sometimes the money was collected at a time before the election, and potential voters had to bring a receipt to be approved to vote, making this requirement especially inconvenient for sharecroppers who moved frequently.
Literacy tests: Some states made voters prove they could read and write before casting a ballot. These tests could be practically impossible to pass. Others used indirect ways to make literacy a requirement. South Carolina, for example, used an “eight-box” system under which voters were required to place ballots for eight separate offices in eight separate boxes. The order of the boxes was continuously shuffled to ensure that that illiterate people couldn’t get help in advance to place their ballots in the proper order.
Grandfather clauses: States with a “grandfather clause” allowed a man to vote even if he hadn’t passed a literacy test, so long as his grandfather had voted before January 1, 1867 (the date African Americans were granted the right to vote in the South). This created a loophole that made sure illiterate white people weren’t prohibited from voting in the way illiterate black people were.
Violence: Although it, of course, wasn’t a legal tactic, violence and the threat of violence served to keep African Americans from voting. Blacks who tried to vote were often threatened, fired from their jobs, beaten, or killed.