On August 2, 1900, North Carolina approved a constitutional amendment that required residents to pass a literacy test in order to register to vote. Under the provision, illiterate registrants with a relative who had voted in an election prior to the year 1863 were exempt from the requirement.
These provisions effectively disenfranchised most of the state’s African-American voting population. At the same time, the rules preserved the voting rights of most of the state’s poor and uneducated white residents — who were much more likely to have a relative eligible to vote in 1863, before the abolition of slavery and passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments. To the drafters and supporters of the amendment, this outcome was by design.
In the days and months leading up to the special election to vote on the literacy test proposal, campaign events throughout the state encouraged white citizens to cast their votes in favor of the policy that would achieve Black disenfranchisement. On the eve of the election, judicial candidate and former Confederate officer William A. Guthrie proclaimed to a crowd of over 12,000:
“The people of the east and west are coming together. The amendment will pass and the negro curbed in every part of the state. Good government will be restored everywhere. Then our ladies can walk the streets of our towns in safety, day or night. White women will not be afraid to go about alone in the country. We will teach the colored race that our people must be respected. We have restrained and conquered other races. They obeyed our demands or were exterminated with the sword. We are at a crisis. Let us rise to the occasion. Come together!”
The campaign was also marked by widespread attempts to suppress African Americans’ participation in the election. “No negro must vote. All white men must vote,” insisted one prominent politician. “We’ll try to bring this about by law. If that don’t go—well, we can try another tack. The white man must and will rule in North Carolina, no matter what methods are necessary to give him authority.”
The effect of racially discriminatory voting laws in North Carolina and throughout the South would persist for generations, effectively disenfranchising Black people throughout the region with little federal intervention until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
The systemic racism started decades ago and still lingers around today, What do we do away with this?