The Rise of Voter Suppression in South Carolina, 1865–1896
The right to vote, which is enshrined in the United States Constitution, affords citizens the opportunity to express their political views. In post-Civil War South Carolina, however, White conservatives regarded suffrage as a privilege that the state’s formerly-enslaved Black majority did not deserve. The destructive war was followed by a fierce political battle in which conservative and progressive forces wrestled over the fundamental right of suffrage. At the end of this violent and bigoted struggle, the Palmetto State adopted legal barriers that effectively suppressed the political voice of its Black citizens for generations to come.
Voting in twenty-first century South Carolina is a relatively easy and painless activity that we often take for granted. Voter registration, for example, is simple and remains valid for a lifetime unless you change your address or your name. Our polling places are safe spaces devoid of partisan influence. Neutral poll volunteers answer questions politely and guide voters through the process. Electoral candidates are identified clearly on printed or electronic ballots, and we enjoy a moment of physical privacy when we cast our votes. These amenities are common-place today, but that hasn’t always been the case.
The ease of modern voting is the result of more than a century of sustained efforts to eradicate traditions of systemic discrimination and secure free and equitable elections for all Americans. In this national struggle for voting rights, South Carolina was one of the most stubborn offenders. Between 1865 and 1965, conservative White South Carolinians pursued a number of practices and policies to prevent and discourage citizens of African descent from exercising their constitutional right to participate in the political system. To help promote a better understanding of this important legacy, I’m going to divide the long narrative of voter suppression in South Carolina into two contrasting chapters. This week I’ll focus on its rise in the late nineteenth century, and next week I’ll describe its decline in the mid-twentieth century.
Let me be the first to point out that my summary of this very complex story omits thousands of interesting details and compresses a lot of nuanced interpretation. My goal is to provide a useful overview of a long narrative with emphasis on what I believe are the most salient points related to voter suppression. Scores of other writers have examined the events and characters in question with much greater depth that I can here. At the end of this essay, you’ll find a list of sources and titles recommended to anyone who wants to delve deeper into this topic.
While traditions of racial discrimination in South Carolina date back to the founding of the colony in 1670, the history of systematic voter suppression in the Palmetto State commenced shortly after the advent of Black suffrage two centuries later, in the 1860s. Having recently lost a war to preserve the institution of slavery, the conservative White South Carolinians who held elected office in 1865 created new laws to limit the rights and freedom of formerly-enslaved people whom they regarded as non-citizens. The adoption of this so-called “Black Code,” combined with the state legislature’s refusal to ratify the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, inaugurated a Federal backlash that became known as Congressional or “Radical” Reconstruction. Between 1867 and 1876, the United States Congress and the U.S. Army applied political pressure to force White South Carolinians to acknowledge the civil rights of the state’s Black majority. This brief and ultimately unsuccessful campaign represented the first era of “Civil Rights” activity in the United States.
Protected by strong federal oversight and the presence of the U.S. Army, thousands of Black South Carolinians registered to vote for the first time in 1867 and instantly formed a numerical majority of the state’s electorate (see Episode No. 172). They affiliated themselves with the liberal Republican Party, in contrast the majority of White South Carolinians who identified with the conservative Democratic Party. Black Republicans, joined by a smaller number of White allies, formed a constitutional convention in early 1868 that crafted a new and very progressive charter for the reconstructed state (see Episode No. 55).
It may surprise some to learn that the South Carolina Constitution of 1868, which was drafted by a Black majority, required every “taxable poll” in the state to pay an annual “poll tax.” “Poll” in this sense meant “head, as in the “capitation” tax levied on poor South Carolinians since 1756. The poll tax was originally a sort of minimum tax to be paid by all citizens, Black and White, to ensure that people who did not own property contributed in some small measure to the public treasury. The state Constitution of 1868 continued this taxing tradition to fund a new system of public schools, but specified “that no person shall ever be deprived of the right of suffrage for the non-payment of said [poll] tax.”
Not everyone appreciated such radical changes to the state’s political traditions in 1868, of course. Across South Carolina, members of the conservative White minority expressed contempt for the new political machinery that empowered the formerly-enslaved Black majority. The combined force of the Federal Reconstruction Act of 1867, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which confirmed citizenship and guaranteed equal protection under the law), and the state Constitution of 1868 upended two centuries of White supremacy and Black subservience in South Carolina. As voters elected more and more Black Republicans to a variety of local, state, and federal offices, White conservative Democrats grew increasingly frustrated and angry. Their desire to re-establish traditions of White supremacy attracted few Black voters as long as Democrats adhered to the rules of law and order. Their solution for regaining political power, therefore, was to circumvent the legitimate political process and to step outside the bounds of civil discourse.
Between 1868 and 1876, the people of South Carolina and other Southern states witnessed a proliferation of illegal activities designed to undermine the political influence of the progressive Republican Party. Under the guise of restoring law and order (in terms defined by a belief in White supremacy), conservative Democrats used fraud, intimidation, violence, and even murder to influence or suppress the votes of their political rivals. Their methods were improvised and sporadic at first, like those of the infamous Ku Klux Klan, but became increasingly organized and efficient throughout the 1870s. At the same time, federal pressure on South Carolina and other Southern States declined after the general election of November 1874, when White Democrats won control of the United States Congress and most of the state legislatures. The Republican civil rights agenda manifest in Congressional Reconstruction rapidly deflated in 1875.
The efforts of White Democrats to regain political supremacy in South Carolina surged forward in 1876 with a two-pronged approach. The most racially-inflamed extremists advocated and pursued a bloody campaign of terror and physical intimidation. Across the state, White paramilitary “rifle clubs” paraded and mobilized to intimidate Black citizens, and legions of armed vigilantes called Red Shirts harassed and murdered both Black civilians and elected officials. South Carolinians witnessed the brutal determination of White conservatives in the Hamburg Massacre that July, the Ellenton Riot of September, and the Cainhoy Riot in October. At the same time, moderate White conservatives expressed their willingness to accept limited African-American participation in local politics, as long as Black voters respected and supported White Democratic leaders and remained in subordinate positions.
If the advent of Black suffrage and civil rights in 1867 represented a revolution in the history of South Carolina, the violent political campaign of 1876 amounted to a full-blown counter-revolution. Conservative White voters represented a minority of the state’s population and its eligible voters, but they succeeded in regaining control of the state’s political landscape in the November general election through the widespread use of violence and fraud. Flushed with success, the state’s Democratic leaders negotiated with Federal officials in early 1877 to withdraw the U.S. military from South Carolina. The twelve-year effort to reconstruct the state’s racist political traditions ended in quiet failure that year, and the future of Black suffrage in the Palmetto State grew dim.
Shortly after the conservative minority gained control of the South Carolina legislature in 1877, the predominately-White lawmakers began considering less violent ways of maintaining their political supremacy. Their goal was to disenfranchise the state’s Black majority, but the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ratified in 1870) specifically prohibited the creation of any voting restrictions based on race or former condition. Although the Federal Constitution explicitly confirmed the right of formerly-enslaved men to vote, it also allowed each state to regulate its own elections. That legal loophole inspired South Carolina’s White conservatives to invent new methods of legally-sanctioned discrimination.
Before investigating the tactics of post-Reconstruction voter suppression, it’s important to remember that there was no such thing as a “secret ballot” in South Carolina at this time. Casting one’s ballot at a polling station was then a very public act observed by anyone and everyone standing nearby. There was no standardization of printed ballots until the twentieth century, and no voter privacy in the Palmetto State until 1950. The use of separate ballot boxes for different political parties and ballots of different colors for each party were methods designed to allow poll managers and interested bystanders to see how each man voted. Under such conditions, observers could and often did challenge minority voters and chastise their political choice. In short, the physical act of voting in the late nineteenth century could be, and often was, an invitation to humiliation, intimidation, and coercion.
In the spring of 1878, the state General Assembly ratified two laws designed to suppress Black voting. The first statute re-defined the state’s voting precincts in such a manner as to require most rural Black voters to travel long distances into White neighborhoods to vote. White legislators hoped this requirement would discourage Black citizens from making the effort to vote and facilitate the intimidation of those who did. The second law created a system of dual ballot boxes to be used at general elections—one for local and state candidates and another for federal candidates. Any ballots placed in the wrong box were automatically voided, making it imperative for voters to have the ability to read the labels on the ballot boxes. This two-box system empowered poll managers to influence the course of the election: they might choose to assist illiterate White voters or to harass and mislead illiterate Black voters at their discretion.
The two-box balloting system of 1878 proved moderately effective in dampening Black suffrage, but it also provided illiterate voters with a fifty-percent chance of casting their ballot successfully. To improve their discriminatory efforts, the predominantly-White legislature overhauled the state’s election laws in February 1882. At every polling place across the state, citizens would henceforth be admitted into a room or enclosed space, one voter at a time, where he would find eight separate ballot boxes representing different local, state, and federal offices. Like the earlier two-box law, the eight-box system of 1882 was designed to frustrate illiterate voters and void all ballots placed in inappropriate boxes. As before, however, poll managers were empowered to read aloud the labels printed on each box, but only if a voter asked for help, and only if the manager felt inclined to assist him. In such circumstances, hostile White poll managers often succeeded in discouraging Black citizens from voting.
All of the aforementioned tactics amounted to legally-sanctioned but patently unjust forms of voter suppression. They were enforced across South Carolina, but were most effective in areas where the White population was roughly equal to or greater than the Black population. In areas of the state with a Black majority, especially in the Lowcountry, the progressive Republican party maintained a feeble presence for several more years. The election laws of 1878 and 1882, enacted through legitimate means, enabled South Carolina’s conservative White minority to maintain and expand the political supremacy it had gained through the use of violence in 1876.
As fewer Black men succeeded in voting in the Palmetto State, the strength of the liberal Republican Party withered as White Democrats dominated the general elections of the 1880s. Over the course of that decade, South Carolina evolved into a one-party state in which political opposition was effectively silenced. In this environment, Democratic victory at November general elections became a foregone conclusion. To further solidify their control over the state’s political machinery, White conservatives shifted their focus from the general elections to the party primary elections held several months earlier.
In post-Civil War South Carolina, there was no state regulation of the political party conventions or primaries at which candidates were selected, so each county did as it pleased. The Democratic Party was an almost-exclusively White organization active across the state, but inconsistencies in the nominating process occasionally allowed rogue Black voters to register. Most counties had adopted some variety of primary election by 1887, and that year Democratic party leaders pushed for state-wide primary rules. One year later, in December 1888, the South Carolina General Assembly ratified “An Act to Protect Primary Elections and Conventions of Political Parties and to Punish Frauds Committee Thereat.” This landmark law prescribed only a general outline for the conduct of such elections, however, and allowed any political party active in the state to regulate the details of its own primaries.
The purpose of the regulatory freedom in the 1888 primary law was to allow political parties to determine their own membership and thereby exclude Black voters from primary elections. From 1889 onward in South Carolina, therefore, the conservative Democratic party was able to prevent Black men from joining the Democratic Party or standing as Democratic candidates. Combined with the success of the eight-box ballot system and traditional methods of voter intimidation at general elections, the state Democratic Party succeeded in creating a one-party political system focused on the outcome of the primary elections. The White men who secured majority votes at the summer Democratic primary were guaranteed to win at the November general election. To borrow a phrase from civil rights lawyers of the mid-twentieth-century, victory at a South Carolina Democratic primary was “tantamount to election.”
The South Carolina gubernatorial contest of 1890 witnessed the election of Ben Tillman and a fierce brand of conservative White populism. Tillman’s rise to the executive office exploited factional divisions in the state Democratic Party, and his pathological hatred of South Carolina’s Black majority won the support of most of the state’s poor White laborers. Under Governor Tillman’s administration, White political sentiments shifted from the manipulation and control of Black voters to their complete disenfranchisement by legal means. By 1894, he had sufficient support to call for a constitutional convention to replace the 1868 constitution created by a majority of Black men. The new South Carolina Constitution, which was ratified by its own authors in December 1895, established a firm foundation of White political supremacy that endured for nearly seventy years.
The state Constitution of 1895 outlined several prerequisites for voting that were specifically designed to suppress the participation of citizens of African descent. Registration officers, appointed by the state, were empowered to require voters to demonstrate the ability to read and write the English language. To raise the bar even higher, the constitution required prospective voters to read, write, and/or explain sections of the state Constitution on demand. This requirement could be waived, however, if the voter owned property valued at $300 or more (a substantial sum at the time). The constitution continued the traditional annual poll tax of $1 to be used for educational purposes, but now required voters to show a receipt for having paid all taxes, including the poll tax, as a prerequisite to voting. By mandating segregated schools for White and Black children, the South Carolina Constitution of 1895 also institutionalized the legal fiction of “separate but equal” across the state.
In March 1896, just a few months after the adoption of the new constitution, the South Carolina General Assembly ratified two statutes designed to perpetuate discriminatory election practices. The first law, relating to general elections, established a modified version of the eight-box law of 1882. Voters wishing to cast ballots for local, state, and federal offices were required to navigate alone through a room filled with multiple marked boxes and deposit their ballots in the correct slots without assistance. Ballots placed in the wrong box would not be counted. The second law of 1896 confirmed and extended the protection of primary elections. To ensure that Black voters or any political rivals could not interfere with the primaries, the new law empowered every political candidate to appoint poll watchers to protect his interests at any and every precinct.
The techniques of legal disenfranchisement enshrined in the state Constitution of 1895 cemented the power of conservative White Democrats over the Palmetto State. The liberal Republican Party, supported by the state’s Black majority and a handful of White voters, was still free to hold its own primaries and endorse candidates to stand at general elections, but the state’s literacy requirement, poll tax, and legally-established policies of voter intimidation blunted the impact of any political dissent. If, by some chance, a Black South Carolinian managed to register to vote in a Democratic primary, he would meet a phalanx of White party operatives ready to deny his suffrage. Such blatant exclusion was perfectly legal because state law viewed the Democratic party as a private club that was empowered to determine its own membership and rule its own behavior. Federal authorities in Washington might have denounced such laws as unconstitutional, but the pendulum of national politics had swung to the right by the mid-1890s. As the infamous Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson demonstrated in 1896, the majority of the nation chose to ignore the perpetuation of systemic discrimination in the former Confederate states.
In the three decades following the American Civil War, South Carolinians fought an internal battle between the creation of a new, equitable society and the perpetuation of the discriminatory status quo antebellum. At the heart of this struggle was the right to suffrage—the right to have a voice in the political system of self-government. Without suffrage, people lack representation, and people who lack representation become marginalized. Their needs, their concerns, and their dreams are largely ignored. The result of South Carolina’s postwar struggle over the right to suffrage was the creation of a deeply segregated, highly unjust society, in which conservative White lawmakers ruled as the self-appointed, paternalistic caretakers of the state’s impoverished and disenfranchised Black majority.
Historians describe this phenomenon as the era of “Jim Crow” politics, in which most White Southerners viewed Americans of African descent as ignorant, lazy, dependent caricatures rather than as fellow citizens. That prejudicial stereotype was wildly inaccurate, of course, but the painful and ultimately unsuccessful postwar campaign for civil rights taught many Black Southerners to keep their heads down and mind their place in a hostile society. At the end of the nineteenth century, many Black South Carolinians viewed voting as a highly dangerous and futile activity. The barriers and risks associated with voting were simply too high by 1896, and the number of registered Black voters across the state steadily declined.
As I observed at the beginning of this program, voting in twenty-first century South Carolina is now a relatively simple and safe activity. So, what changed to improve this important aspect of civil life? Today we often look back with pride and thank the brave activists of the 1950s and 1960s, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. John Lewis, Septima Clark, and many others who campaigned to secure full and equal civil rights for Americans of African descent. As remarkable and praiseworthy as that movement was, however, it wasn’t solely responsible for destroying Jim Crow. The first cracks appeared decades earlier.
The beginning of the second great American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s was preceded by an important series of subtle legal changes that gradually eroded the traditions of voter suppression in South Carolina and other Southern states. In the years leading up to the success of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, evolving national attitudes forced South Carolina lawmakers to reassess their commitment to White political supremacy and racial segregation. As a result of their unrepentant self-reflection, barriers to Black voting quietly disappeared. Next week, we'll explore the obscure twentieth-century milestones that marked the decline of disenfranchisement and presaged the success of the civil rights movement in the Palmetto State.
Selected Titles For Further Reading:
Bartlett, Bruce R. Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Drago, Edmund L. Hurrah for Hampton!: Black Red Shirts in South Carolina during Reconstruction. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.
Dudden, Faye E. Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Gillette, William. Retreat from Reconstruction, 1869–1879. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Goldman, Robert M. Reconstruction & Black Suffrage: Losing the Vote in Reese & Cruikshank. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.
Hennessey, Melinda Meeks. “Racial Violence during Reconstruction: The 1876 Riots in Charleston and Cainhoy.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 86 (April 1985): 100–112.
Jenkins, Wilbert L. Seizing the New Day: African Americans in Post-Civil War Charleston. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Kantrowitz, Stephen, “One Man’s Mob is Another Man’s Militia: Violence, Manhood, and Authority in Reconstruction South Carolina.” In Jane Dailey, et al., eds. Jumpin’ Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000, 67–87.
Kantrowitz, Stephen David, Ben Tillman & the Reconstruction of White Supremacy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Poole, W. Scott. “Religion, Gender, and the Lost Cause in South Carolina’s 1876 Governor’s Race: ‘Hampton or Hell!’” Journal of Southern History 68 (August 2002): 573–98.
Powers, Bernard E. Jr. Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822–1885. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
Powers, Bernard E. Jr. “Community Evolution and Race Relations in Reconstruction Charleston, South Carolina.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 95 (January 1994): 27–46.
Rubin, Hyman III. South Carolina Scalawags. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006.
Smith, Mark M. “ ‘All is Not Quiet in Our Hellish County’: Facts, Fiction, Politics, and Race: The Ellenton Riot of 1876.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 95 (April 1994): 142–55.
Tindall, George B. “The Campaign for the Disfranchisement of Negroes in South Carolina.” Journal of Southern History 15 (May 1949): 212–34.
Wallace, D. D. “The South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1895.” The Sewanee Review 4 (May 1896): 348–360.
Zuczek, Richard. State of Rebellion: Reconstruction in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.
 The historical background of the annual “capitation tax” on free people of color in early South Carolina is described in Judith Brimelow and Michael E. Stevens, State Free Negro Capitation Tax Books, Charleston, South Carolina, ca. 1811–1860: An Introduction to Accompany South Carolina Archives Microcopy No. 11 (Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1983).
 See the South Carolina Constitution of 1868, Article IX, Section 2, and Article X, Section 5.
 There are many good book and articles about Reconstruction-era political violence in South Carolina. The reading list above includes several titles that I used to construct the foregoing summary.
 See “An Act to Amend an Act Entitled ‘An Act to Establish by Law the Voting Precincts in the Various Counties in This State,’” and “An Act to Alter and Amend the Law in Relation to Elections,” created two boxes for Federal and State and Local offices,” both ratified on 22 March 1878, in Acts and Joint Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina, Passed at the Regular Session of 1877–78 (Columbia, S.C.: Calvo & Patton, 1878), 565–70, 632–33; George B. Tindall, “The Campaign for the Disfranchisement of Negroes in South Carolina,” Journal of Southern History 15 (May 1949): 213–14.
 See Sections 28 and 29 of “An Act to Amend Title II. (Entitled) ‘Of Elections’ of Part I. (Entitled) ‘Of the Internal Administration of the Government’ of the General Statutes,” in Acts and Joint Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina, Passed at the Regular Session of 1881–2 (Columbia, S.C.: James Woodrow, 1882), 1110–26.
 Charleston News and Courier, 26 October 1888, page 4, “Guard the Primaries;’ “An Act to Protect Primary Elections and Conventions of Political Parties and to Punish Frauds Committed Thereat,” ratified on 22 December 1888, in Acts and Joint Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina, Passed at the Regular Session of 1888 (Columbia, S.C.: James H. Woodrow, 1889), 10–12.
 See Section 8 of “An Act to Provide for Holding Elections in This State,” and “An Act to Amend an Act Entitled ‘An Act to Protect Primary Elections and Conventions of Political Parties and to Punish Frauds Committed Thereat,’ Approved 22d December, 1888, by Adding Thereto a Section Providing for Watchers and for Certificates of Registration,’” both ratified on 9 March 1896, in Acts and Joint Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina, Passed at the Regular Session of 1896 (Columbia, S.C.: Charles A. Calvo, 1896), 29–33, 56.