1898 - The Grandfather Clause
The Grandfather Clause was a statute enacted by many American southern states in the wake of Reconstruction (1865-1877). It allowed potential white voters to circumvent literacy tests, poll taxes, and other tactics designed to disenfranchise southern blacks. Following the American Civil War (1861-1865) and the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), which extended citizenship to blacks, the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) was ratified, providing that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged…on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” After a brief period of relatively open voting, southern states with Democratic legislatures began enacting poll taxes, literacy and property tests, and understanding clauses. They claimed that these restrictions would exclude the poor and uneducated, in a thinly veiled attempt to eliminate the black vote. Many southern states, however, had to rely on the cunning of voter registrars to ensure that poor and uneducated whites were not disfranchised by these tests. Looking for a more straightforward method to exempt whites, Louisiana created the Grandfather Clause in 1898. It allowed those who were able to vote before 1867, or those whose fathers or grandfathers could vote before 1867, to skip the tests and taxes. Because no blacks could vote in Louisiana before 1867, the year in which the Reconstruction Act ordered universal male suffrage, the Grandfather Clause excluded blacks in an inexplicit manner, avoiding the ire of the Supreme Court and northern Congressmen. Additionally, the enactment of the Grandfather Clause avoided national scrutiny because the national media was preoccupied with the coinciding outbreak of the Spanish-American War. North Carolina was next to establish the Grandfather Clause in 1900. Although the North Carolina clause eventually passed, it had to surmount serious opposition from blacks and Republicans wary of aggravating the federal government. Eventually, Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Virginia also put similar statutes into law. In tandem with other methods of black disfranchisement, the Grandfather Clause suppressed the black vote until the civil rights movement brought on the dismantling of Jim Crow in the South. At least in part, the absence of black voters ensured black schools would languish, and discriminatory policy would pervade Southern society. The United States Supreme Court deemed grandfather clauses unconstitutional in Guinn v. United States (1915). The Court stated that Oklahoma’s Grandfather Clause was “repugnant to the prohibitions of the Fifteenth Amendment” and that Oklahoma must remove its clause. The other states that had grandfather clauses were also forced to dismantle their versions. In practice, however, the Supreme Court’s verdict had no impact on black suffrage. Each state affected by the ruling quickly enacted new policies to sidestep Guinn. In Oklahoma, for example, legislators passed a statute which extended the vote only to those who did vote or were eligible to vote prior to Guinn.