Political Oppression of Blacks
Very pointed efforts were made to repress black voting following the Civil War. The prevailing view among white Southerners was that blacks were not intelligent enough to think for themselves. The Florida Times-Union opined, “In the South, the negro in politics is not tolerated. . . . If the negro be wise he will respect the limits set for him as does the elephant and the tiger and the others who accept rules and make no pretense to reason.”i Given this widespread view among whites, the political oppression of blacks in Florida after Reconstruction was pervasive, as it was throughout the South. Now that the Democrats were back in control, blacks could no longer vote freely even in counties in which blacks outnumbered whites.
Florida led the way in implementing the poll tax which the state passed in 1889. Although the tax was applied to black and white voters, the effect upon voter suppression was greater upon the blacks whose resources were clearly more limited than those of the whites. This tax also suppressed the vote of poor whites to a degree that was probably intentional. But, poll tax aside, whites, poor or rich, could join the Democrat Party, and blacks could not. The use of grandfather clauses was another method that was used to suppress black voter registration. In this instance, a person could not be registered to vote unless his grandfather was a voter.
Whites also used voter qualification tests that were easy for whites to pass but contained ridiculous questions for black applicants such as asking how many bubbles are in a bar of soap or how many angels can sit on the head of a pin. Since Democrats controlled the post-war South and Republicans were forced out of power, the black Republican vote that had empowered so many blacks during Reconstruction was now essentially meaningless.
By the turn of the century white supremacy was re-entrenched, and the state was served by a succession of racist governors, the worst of whom was Sidney Catts. Governor Catts offered his voice in defense of lynch law. The NAACP wired him in March, 1919, asking his assistance in bringing lynchers to justice. He replied that, “‘the [white] citizenship will not stand for’ indictment of racist vigilantes. Black leaders, he wrote, should cease ‘harping on the disgrace [lynching] brings to the State’ and devote themselves to curbing ‘the wanton, reckless negroes of your race, who wander from City to City, County to County and State to State, doing all the devilment they can.’ Personally, Catts added, ‘If any man, white or black, should dishonor one of my family he would meet my pistol square from the shoulder, and every white man in this South, who is a red-blooded American, feels the same as I do.’”ii
The main tool used to suppress the black vote was the whites-only primary election. The Democratic Party was allowed to operate under its own rules until states began to regulate primary elections in the 1940s. Once the state became a party to the regulating of primary elections, political parties could no longer exclude blacks. A federal case arising in Texas, Smith v. Allwright, provided a landmark decision from the United States Supreme Court in 1944. The court ruled that political parties could not discriminate based upon race since the state was involved in the process. This opened the floodgates for the ascent of black political power in Florida. The same was played out in other states of the old Confederacy. By the mid-1940s blacks were admitted to the Democratic Party and since have become major players in Florida politics and in the politics of the South.