by Nicholas Mitchell Ph.D.
The notion and reality of black political power frightens the racist portion of the American body politic and those who enable it, who in turn actively try to suppress it. The reasoning behind the suppression of the African American vote in the United States has not changed since the practice began after the end of Reconstruction. Black voters meant that black people had a say in what laws were passed and what taxes were levied. More distressing to white supremacists of both the Reconstruction period and today, black voters meant black policymakers and elected officials. During Reconstruction, this fear was made real by the ascendancy of black politicians such as P.B.S. Pinchback (acting Louisiana governor from 1872-73) and the drafting of the Louisiana State Constitution of 1868, largely written by black legislators.
The suppression of the black vote during the Jim Crow period began with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Slaughter House Cases of 1873 which declared that the privileges and immunities of U.S. citizenship guaranteed by the 14th Amendment did not apply to state citizenship. Suppression was made inevitable with the defeat of the Federal Elections Bill of 1890 which would have given federal courts oversight over state elections. Free from federal interference, many states, especially in the South, stripped black people of their voting rights through a combination of outright denial and extreme voting requirements such as poll taxes and literacy tests.
In 1965, the Voting Rights Act ended the most egregious voter suppression tactics by giving the federal courts oversight over state and local elections. In 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the oversight formula used to determine if a district was in violation of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional in Shelby County V. Holder. To date, no new formula has been created by Congress. Efforts to suppress the black vote, then, have taken a number of forms.