On this dayMar 02, 1948
White Residents Wage a Terror Campaign of Violent Intimidation to Keep Registered Black Voters from Voting in Johnson County, Georgia
On March 2, 1948, on the eve of a primary election in Wrightsville, Johnson County, Georgia, at least 300 white men and women belonging to the Ku Klux Klan held a parade in the town’s center. The gathering featured speeches inciting racial hatred and violence, and participants burned crosses on the lawn of the county courthouse. The event was organized to threaten and intimidate the county’s 400 registered Black voters into not voting in the primary the following day, and the terror tactics worked: fearing for their safety and knowing they had no expectation of protection from law enforcement, not a single Black citizen of Wrightsville cast a vote in the primary.
White voters and politicians in the U.S., and particularly in the South, have actively sought to suppress Black voter turnout and political representation since the establishment of Black voting rights. Following Emancipation, many states instituted laws and requirements, such as poll taxes, felony disenfranchisement policies, and literacy tests, to infringe on Black Americans’ right to participate in the political process. In addition to these legislative methods, white residents emboldened by the support of corrupt law enforcement used violent threats, intimidation, and racial terror lynching to terrorize and sometimes kill Black voters. Unchecked racialized violence and disenfranchisement of Black voters kept America’s racial hierarchy intact for generations after the abolition of American chattel slavery.
In 1940, 77% of Black Americans still lived in the South, where they made up 24% of the population but only 3.5% of registered voters. Because Southern districts included large numbers of Black residents, the disenfranchisement of Southern Black people translated into the super-enfranchisement of Southern white people: in a 50% Black Southern district where no Black people voted, each white vote carried twice the influence of a Northern vote cast in a fully enfranchised district. In this way, the disenfranchisement of Southern Black people empowered Southern white voters at the expense of almost everyone else.
In Johnson County, this history of intimidation and unjust laws meant that a community with more than 1,500 Black adult residents (according to the 1950 census) registered just 400 Black voters and held an election in which not one Black person cast a vote. This disenfranchisement was consequential in Johnson County in 1948, as the primary election helped choose the community’s county sheriff and the judge of the city court. Prior to the election, Judge W.C. Brinson—a white man—announced that any voter who showed up at the polls would be required to sign a “white supremacy pledge” and a commitment to racial segregation in Georgia. The plan was ultimately abandoned prior to the election, but Judge Brinson, chairman of one of the county’s political parties, was re-elected to the position of City Court Judge by the all-white electorate. Unconcerned by the disenfranchisement of all of his Black constituents, Judge Brinson later blamed local Black voters for their own mistreatment and low turnout, claiming they had not voted due to a lack of interest “in county affairs”—completely ignoring the Klan parade and threats of violence the local Black community had faced just days before Election Day.
In the 1960s, activists eventually achieved passage of landmark civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars racial discrimination in workplaces and public accommodations, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which finally created federal oversight to protect African American voting rights. The Voting Rights Act brought widespread enfranchisement to Black communities for the first time since Reconstruction. Just three years after the law passed, Black voter registration in the South had increased by 1.3 million people. The greatest changes were in the states most targeted by the new law. In Mississippi, 60% of eligible Black voters were registered in 1968, up from just 7% in 1965.
In 2010, Alabama’s Republican-controlled state government filed a lawsuit challenging the Voting Rights Act as “no longer necessary.” Three years later, in Shelby County v. Holder, a divided Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act by striking down the requirement that states like Alabama obtain “pre-clearance” from the federal government before changing their voting laws. In dissent, late Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the Court was turning its back to history. “The sad irony of today's decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the [Voting Rights Act] has proven effective,” she wrote.
Read EJI’s Segregation in America report to learn more about how voter suppression and intimidation efforts were tools used to uphold white supremacy. You can also learn more about how disenfranchisement of Black Americans continues today here.