Florida's history of suppressing blacks' votes

NAACP leader Harry Moore and Harriette Moore, on their property in Mims, not long before their home was bombed on Christmas in 1951.
NAACP leader Harry Moore and Harriette Moore, on their property in Mims, not long before their home was bombed on Christmas in 1951.
Published Oct. 11, 2013

Editor's note: Today and on the two Sundays to follow, USF St. Petersburg professor emeritus Darryl Paulson will lay out the many ways that Florida has discriminated against black voters from the Civil War forward.

Blacks composed almost half of Florida's population at the end of the Civil War. Like in other Southern states, most blacks in Florida were slaves and none had the right to vote.

As a condition for rejoining the Union, Florida and the rest of the Confederate states had to draft new constitutions protecting the political rights of the newly freed slaves. And the federal Constitution's 13th, 14th and 15th amendments ended slavery, protected against state discrimination and guaranteed that blacks could not be denied the right to vote because of their race.

But despite common perception, the 15th Amendment did not guarantee blacks the right to vote. Rather, it is a negative statement. It says the right to vote cannot be denied because of race. The distinction is critical. It allowed the South to develop barriers to voting that would eliminate blacks' votes without coming into conflict with the 15th Amendment.

Soon after the Civil War, there was an explosion in the number of black voters (male only) and black elected officials. Nineteen blacks were elected to the 76-member Florida Legislature, and Josiah Walls, a former slave and Union soldier from Alachua County, became Florida's first black member of Congress when he won election in 1870. He would be the only black member of Congress from Florida for the next 116 years.

By 1876, Reconstruction was over, and Florida politicians would adopt many provisions to eliminate black voting. The Sunshine State would "legally" eliminate black votes without violating the 15th Amendment. Between laws passed by the Legislature and the adoption of the 1885 Constitution, almost every black vote was eliminated.

Florida, like every one of the former Confederate states, adopted a white primary, grandfather clause, poll tax, literacy test, long residency requirements and other obstacles to black voters. It was a virtual fail-safe system. If one barrier failed, there would always be another to stop them from voting.

Florida was also a leading innovator of discriminatory barriers to voting. Some Florida counties used tissue ballots or undersized ballots in areas where there were significant numbers of black voters.

Election officials would stuff the ballot boxes so there would be more ballots than legal voters. To remedy the problem, election officials would pull out the excess ballots. Not surprisingly, they pulled out the tissue or undersize ballots that had been given to blacks.

Another Florida innovation was the "multiple ballot box" or "eight-box" law of 1889. This law required voters to place eight separate ballots into eight ballot boxes. Since blacks were denied an education and 40 percent were classified illiterate in 1900, they could not read to know which ballot was supposed to go in which box.

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Even the secret ballot, a hallmark of democracy, was used in Florida to discriminate against blacks. Because of their high illiteracy rates, blacks needed assistance in casting their ballot. Under the guise of preserving the integrity of the ballot, Florida either denied assistance to illiterates or limited the number of illiterate voters a person could assist.

The white primary

One of the major barriers to black voting in Florida was the white primary, which said that only whites could vote in the primary election. This seems like a clear violation of the 15th Amendment.

But it did not violate the Constitution, according to the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1921 case of Newberry vs. the United States. This case involved a contested Michigan primary election in which the court held that Congress could not regulate primary elections.

The South saw its opportunity. If the federal government could not regulate primaries, then Southern states could limit who participated in those elections. In the one-party South, whoever won the primary won the general election. Florida's white primary dates back to 1892 when the Democratic Party banned blacks from voting in its elections to preserve the "purity and integrity of the party."

Beginning in 1927, the NAACP began its assault on the white primary laws. In Nixon vs. Herndon, a unanimous Supreme Court struck down the Texas white primary as a clear violation of the 14th Amendment's "equal protection" clause since state discrimination was involved. Texas slightly altered the law, but the court again found it violated the 14th Amendment in the 1932 case of Nixon vs. Condon.

Texas altered the law again. This "legislate and litigate" strategy was an essential part of the Southern strategy to deny and delay blacks the right to vote.

On April Fool's Day in 1935, the Supreme Court upheld the Texas white primary.

Finally, in the 1944 case of Smith vs. Allwright, the court declared the white primary was unconstitutional and a violation of the 15th Amendment. South Carolina sought to evade the court's decision by repealing all laws relating to elections so that the court could not find any state discrimination. Florida considered doing the same, but the Supreme Court ended these political shenanigans.

In 1945 in Davis vs. Cromwell, the Florida Supreme Court declared that the state's white primary was unconstitutional. In response to the court's decision, the city of Jacksonville switched from ward to at-large elections to prevent the election of blacks in majority-black districts.

When a black minister in Jacksonville attempted to register and vote in 1944, he was told, "You won't go to jail, but you will be killed! This is Florida. We don't allow n-----s to vote here in Democratic primaries."

The repeal of the white primary provided the first tangible increase in black voter registration in Florida. "Florida citizens now face a bright future," wrote Harry Moore, head of the Florida NAACP and the Progressive Voters' League.

In 1940, only 3 to 6 percent of blacks in Florida were registered to vote. By 1947, the number increased to 13 to 16 percent.

The Florida poll tax

Florida was the first state in the nation to adopt a poll tax. In 1889 the Legislature adopted a $2 annual poll tax as a requirement for voting. On the surface, there was nothing discriminatory about the tax. Both whites and blacks had to pay it.

In reality, the legislators knew that the $2 tax would affect blacks more because they were so poor. Although some poor whites also were disfranchised, they could often find ways to circumvent the tax. Candidates often paid the cost to entice voters. Election officials frequently "overlooked" the tax for whites.

Florida was one of only four states that relied extensively on the poll tax to impede black voting. It was also among the first Southern states to abandon it in state elections and to push to abolish it in national elections. Florida officials were not having a change of heart, but they realized there were more effective ways to curtail black voting.

Florida abolished the poll tax in 1938 because so many candidates were trying to buy votes by paying the tax. U.S. Sen. Spessard Holland of Florida would be one of the leaders pushing to abolish the tax in federal elections. In 1964, the 24th Amendment was approved abolishing the tax in federal elections.

Whites often used violence to intimidate potential black voters. Immediately after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan formed in Tennessee and quickly spread throughout the South. It was strongest where the black population was largest.

Florida in the 19th century was fundamentally different than modern Florida. As late as 1900, it was the least populated state east of the Mississippi, and nearly half the population was black. White Floridians worried about blacks getting voting rights and used violence to prevent that from happening.

From 1890 to 1930, Florida trailed only Mississippi in the number of lynchings per capita.

In 1920, Republicans had been organizing blacks to vote in Ocoee in Central Florida. Violence erupted when a black man attempted to vote. According to the NAACP's Walter White, who came to Ocoee to investigate the resulting massacre, 60 blacks were killed and 20 blacks' homes were burned to the ground. Three years later, Rosewood, a lumber village near Cedar Key, was wiped off the map when the klan and others killed eight black residents and burned down every black home.

Perhaps the most infamous violence occurred on Christmas Eve in 1951 when a bomb was placed under the home of Harry Moore, president of the Florida NAACP and the leader of a black voter registration campaign.

Moore and his wife were killed, and no one was ever arrested. In 2006, then-Attorney General Charlie Crist reopened the case and concluded that four klan members were responsible for the bombing. All of them were dead when the report was issued in 2008.

Darryl Paulson is professor emeritus of government at USF St. Petersburg specializing in Florida and Southern politics and political parties and elections. He has more than 50 publications, mostly focusing on race and civil rights issues in Florida and the South. He is currently working on a book on "The Emergence of the Modern Florida Republican Party: From Cramer to Scott." He holds the unique distinction of being the only academic in America to have been hired numerous times by the state and national NAACP while serving as a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. This work originally appeared in ContextFlorida and includes extracts from his expert witness report from an upcoming voting rights case to soon be heard in federal district court in Tallahassee.