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The Negro Disenfranchised


The Fifteenth Amendment, and the fact that the victorious North stationed federal troops in the South during Reconstruction, led to a brief period of political gains for African Americans. But white southerners began a counterattack against black voting. In some cases they used legal means, like poll taxes, but more commonly they resorted to acts of terrorist violence designed to intimidate citizens. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was one of the secret organizations that led the attacks on black voters, using lynchings, beatings and other forms of violent intimidation to keep African Americans from the polls. The KKK's activities are described in three massive volumes of testimony compiled by Congress in the 1860s, but whether constitutional or not, the actions of the Klan were successful in drastically reducing voting by African Americans. Senator Benjamin Ryan Tillman, pictured in this cartoon from 1897, often worked to disempower blacks.


P. Thomas Stanford, "The Negro Disenfrancised," The tragedy of the Negro in America : a condensed history of the enslavment, sufferings, emancipation, present condition and progress of the Negro race in the United States of America (Cambridge, MA: [s.n.], 1897). Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Much of the history of voting in America has been the story of the expansion and contraction of the voting rights. The invention and use of the 1898 Standard Voting Machine coincided with concern among progressive reformers about fraud and corruption in the electoral process. However, the story of progressive reform should be situated within the larger story of the struggle for voting rights among African Americans and women, and the attempt of the American polity to grapple with the question of whether the large numbers of newly arrived immigrants were fit to participate in civic life.