2 minute read

Guinn v. United States


A unanimous Supreme Court had for the first time struck down a state law disenfranchising African Americans; however, Oklahoma almost immediately found another way to continue discriminating against black voters and the federal government took no action, leaving black Americans effectively disenfranchised in much of the nation until the voting rights movement of the 1960s.

The story of African American voting rights begins with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment soon after the end of the Civil War. The Fifteenth Amendment was very simple. It had only two sentences:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

For a while, during the period known as Reconstruction, the Fifteenth Amendment was actually enforced. Federal troops occupied the states of the former Confederacy to make sure that black Americans had the right to vote. But when federal troops were withdrawn in 1873, Southern states found many ways to make voting a whites-only endeavor. In addition to outright terrorism by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, many states sought to prevent black voting by a system of laws and rules.

One of the best-known ways of restricting voting was the "literacy test." Being able to read, for example, a part of the state constitution might be made a requirement for voting. In those times, many people, both black and white, could not read or could not read well. A registrar might ask a white voter to read only a simple word or sentence, or might coach or help him, whereas a black voter might be asked to read a long, complicated passage. Technically, literacy tests were not considered to be in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment, because they made literacy, not race, the reason that voting was being restricted.

Another way that African Americans were kept out of the voting booth was by the so-called "Grandfather clause." There were many varieties of this kind of law, which said that people who had been voting before a certain date--or whose grandfathers had been voting before that date--did not have to register; they were simply allowed to vote. That way, registration rules could be made very complicated, or voter registration could be limited to a short, inconvenient time. If the voting date was set back far enough, it would exclude virtually all black voters, who had only been given the right to vote in 1869.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Guinn v. United States - Significance, Oklahoma's Grandfather Clause, A Political Decision, The Supreme Court Decides, Civil Rights And Wrongs