On this dayMay 12, 1898

Louisiana Officially Disenfranchises Black Voters and Jurors

Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

On May 12, 1898, the State of Louisiana adopted a new constitution with numerous restrictive provisions intended to exclude African American men from civic participation. At this time in the U.S., women of all races remained barred from voting, while Black men had recently gained the right to vote under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The new Louisiana Constitution, however, created a poll tax, literacy and property-ownership requirements, and a complex voter registration form all designed and enforced to disproportionately disenfranchise Black male voters.

The year 1865 included the Confederacy's defeat in the Civil War, widespread emancipation, and the abolition of slavery. All of these developments threatened to overturn Southern culture and social relations, which were based on white supremacy and racial hierarchy. After Reconstruction ended in 1877 and white politicians and lawmakers regained control and power in the South, many efforts were made to restore that racial order through very strict laws that stripped Black people of many of their new civil rights—including the right to vote. In Louisiana, framers explicitly expressed their goal to “purify the electorate.”

When the restrictive voting provisions were first proposed for the 1898 Louisiana Constitution, some white officials expressed concern that the property and literacy requirements would also disenfranchise an estimated 25% of the white male population of voting age. In response, lawmakers drafted a “Grandfather Clause” which created an exception for those whose ancestors were registered to vote before 1867. This clause enabled many illiterate and poor white men to get around the literacy and property requirements. Black people remained blocked because Louisiana laws before 1867 disenfranchised nearly all Black men—especially those who were enslaved.

The 1898 Louisiana Constitution also eliminated the requirement of unanimous jury verdicts, allowing as much as a 9-3 split to still stand as a conviction. Because the U.S. Constitution now prevented states from wholly barring Black people from jury service, this provision was enacted to render small numbers of Black jurors inconsequential. Thomas Semmes, a former Confederate senator and head of the convention’s judiciary committee, praised the provision for success in its goal “to establish the supremacy of the white race in this State to the extent to which it could be legally and Constitutionally done.”

The 1898 Louisiana Constitution eliminated federally enforced voting rules that had enfranchised Black men in Louisiana during Reconstruction. As a result, in a state with 650,804 Black residents, the number of Black registered voters dropped from 130,000 before the new Constitution to just 5,000 by 1900. By 1904, the number dropped to just 1,000.

Throughout the Southern states, disenfranchisement laws targeted Black communities for generations. Louisiana’s 1898 Constitution was revised slightly in 1913, but most of its restrictive language remained until 1972. The non-unanimous jury rule remained in effect for more than a century, until Louisiana voters approved a Constitutional amendment to abolish it in November 2018.

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