I walked into the building, my palms are sweating as my hands are shaking as they collected all the papers I needed. I walked up to the desk and asked for the test with a shaky voice. I sit down running through all the amendments and laws through my mind one more time. I looked down at the paper and its almost as if all I had to decipher a different language. One deep breath and I continue. I finished the 65-question test and walked over to the same attendant. With piercing glaring eyes, he glanced at my test quickly and muttered “You cannot vote today,” with distain. Confusion and disappointment filled me as I questioned everything. I did everything right. I paid the poll tax, got all the papers in order, and memorized the Constitution and Bill of Rights. All the hours I spent memorizing and studying so that I could make a change in my country and contribute by voting.
The two questions that I answered wrong were now forever engrained in my brain as a sign of failure. Maybe I can vote next year… Slavery was officially abolished in the United States in 1865 when the 13th Amendment was passed. In the following two years, black codes were created to keep freed people tethered to slavery. Suppression and restriction came in many forms as an aftermath of slavery. Black codes were developed as a repercussion from slavery to keep restrictions on the freedom of slaves. Jim Crow Laws evolved after this, invoking racial segregation allowing African Americans to be subjected to voter suppression. From slavery to voter suppression, the act of restriction changed at a constant rate, adding laws to enforce and ensure that the freedom of African Americans was limited.
Following the Civil War and the era of Reconstruction, the status of African Americans was greatly questioned. White lawmakers were in fear of African Americans tarnishing the economic and social hierarchy, as they would change the power dynamic. They created laws to hinder the freedom and liberty of these freed African Americans. It was a way for the postbellum south to still maintain power and restriction as they infringed on the rights of the freed slaves. 1 White southerners along did not want the basic power structures of society to change, so they created the Black Codes as a form of oppression. Black Codes was the mastermind of the black labor leaving them with little autonomy, pushing them to evert to slavery.
The former labor population was given little choice even after the abolition movement because the codes became a replacement for slavery. This new form of control was completely supported by the former Confederate states. Local newspapers and pamphlets were in support of these laws making it acceptable for the society to integrate and enforce it.2 The leverage that these southerners used was the prospect of incarceration. The fear of that kept ex-slaves from leaving their prior masters. With Emancipation the economy could no longer rely on the free labor. Furthermore, white Southerners could no longer define African Americans as sub-human or “naturally servile”; Southerners wanted to keep it a “White man’s nation.
Mississippi became one of the states with the strictest codes. In Section 8 of the Civil Rights of Freedmen it states, “…upon affidavit made by the employer of any freedman…has illegally deserted said employment, such justice of the peace or member of the board of police shall issue his warrant or warrants…” 4. These codes were notorious for being cruel and reversing any lead way that the Emancipation Proclamation and the Abolition Movement made. Section 8 was this modern society’s Fugitive Slave Act. In Louisiana, one code declares “Every negro is required to be in the regular service of some white person, or former owner…”. These codes limited the civic and economic rights of African Americans. When restriction rose, these violators were arrested and forced into labor that was auctioned off. Slavery went from one form and grew into another and Black Codes rose to power.
While African Americans were given the right to own land, they could not own real estate. They were forced to rent it out and became reliant on white southerners for labor and land. In Mississippi land was granted only if government officials decided to allow it. African Americans were forced to work in agriculture as one of the few options to avoid prison, further defining the southern ideal that they belong in fields or on plantations. Race was still a defining and demeaning role as marriage was divided by race and the only legal action an African American can take is still in the same race. An African American could not sue a white man. Even common activities were prohibited. If a group of freedmen collected together day or night, they could all be arrested. The 1st Amendment right did not apply to them. Every freedom that a white man was not as possible for a black man currently in this period. Voting was not included in the Black Codes because it did not exist for African Americans. These codes not only instilled a fear for freedmen, but also tension between the races. The codes included authority given to white people, as they could arrest anyone who did not follow the codes, given them power to apprehend as they see fit.
As segregation took form, the Jim Crow Laws evolved from the Black Codes. Violence rose as race became a strong divider. The Jim Crow Laws was a way to build on top of the codes. It dictated almost everything for the African American life. There were restrictions on schooling, transportation, public bathrooms, books, and voting. Through the persistent publication and distribution of racially charged advertisement cards and song books, white establishments guaranteed society’s persistent, and systemic racism. This quickly escalated as the Jim Crow Laws became widely accepted by the south. Not only did it restrict all the unspoken rights of white men, it stripped it from African Americans. The possibility to vote was without question for blacks currently. Violence would restrict voting as it was a fear implementation tactic to cease participation. The number of lynching rose; whites would hang men when they tried to vote as a warning sign to others causing the voting participation to drastically lower. Books were written directed towards African American men suggesting the proper strategy to vote.
From 1900 to 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was written, almost all African Americans could not vote. Literacy tests, polling taxes, property tests, and the grandfather clause repressed black voters. A literacy test given in Louisiana consists of 26 pages of questions and application forms. Even one question wrong could jeopardize voting rights. Polling tax prices ranged from $1.50 to $1.75; in Alabama they included a collector’s fee and assessor’s fee.8 These taxes prevented poor African Americans from voting which lowered the general population of black voters. The grandfather clause was a way for a false reality that the possibility of voting was possible for African Americans. It stated that people who did not own property or could read or write could vote if their fathers did. However almost no black man could vote before 1867 when the clause was created.
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