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Redemption, in the history of the United States, was a term used by white Southerners to refer to the reversion of the South to conservative Democratic Party rule after the period of Reconstruction (1865–1877), which followed the American Civil War.

During Reconstruction, the South was under occupation by federal forces and the state governments were dominated by the Radical Republicans. These Republicans pressed for the granting of political rights to the newly freed black slaves. The Thirteenth Amendment (banning slavery), Fourteenth Amendment (guaranteeing the civil rights of former slaves and ensuring equal protection of the laws), and Fifteenth Amendment (prohibiting the denial of the right to vote on grounds of race, color, or condition of servitude) enshrined such political rights into the Constitution.

Numerous educated blacks returned to the South to work for Reconstruction. Some blacks attained positions of political power under these conditions. However, the Reconstruction government was unpopular with many elite white Southerners, who were not willing to accept defeat and continued to try to prevent black political activity by any means.

In the 1870s, the Southern Democrats exercised power through paramilitary organizations such as the White League and Red Shirts. Southern Democrats continued to enforce their influence with white paramilitary groups that turned out Republican officeholders, and terrorized and assassinated other freedmen and their allies to suppress voting. By the time of the presidential election of 1876, only three states of the South — (Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida) had not yet been taken over by white Democrats, or were "unredeemed". The disputed Presidential election between Republican governor of Ohio Rutherford B. Hayes and Democratic governor of New York Samuel J. Tilden was resolved by the Compromise of 1877. Hayes became President in exchange for numerous favors to the South, one of which was the removal of Federal troops from the remaining "unredeemed" Southern states. With the removal of these forces, Reconstruction came to an end.

Disfranchising constitutions[]

The end of Reconstruction marked the beginning of a period, 1877–1908, in which white Democratic legislators took two major steps to reduce rights of African Americans. First, they passed laws to make voter registration and election rules more complicated. Then they created new constitutions that effectively completed disfranchisement of African Americans and poor whites. With control of the state legislatures, they also passed Jim Crow laws, making segregation required in all public facilities, and ushering in the nadir of American race relations. The constitutions included provisions for poll taxes, literacy tests and other tests, and residency requirements that were difficult for poor sharecroppers and laborers to meet.

Dominated by whites of the elite classes, state legislatures were also suspicious of lower-class whites and worked to prevent their affiliation with African Americans. From 1890 to 1908, starting with Mississippi and ending with Georgia, ten of the eleven states of the Confederacy passed new constitutions or amendments that created new requirements for voter registration. The effect on black disfranchisement was immediate and devastating. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans were removed from voter registration rolls across the South and effectively disfranchised, most before 1910. Tens of thousands of poor whites were also disfranchised.[1][2] One-party rule under white Democrats was established. This wing of the Democrats kept control on the Southern U.S. until the 1960s, a phenomenon known as the Solid South.

The impact of disfranchisement is illustrated by the case of Alabama. In 1900, fourteen Black Belt counties had 79,311 voters on the rolls; by June 1, 1903 after the new constitution, registration had dropped to just 1,081. Statewide Alabama in 1900 had 181,315 blacks eligible to vote. By 1903, only 2,980 were registered, although at least 74,000 were literate. From 1900 to 1903, white registered voters fell by more than 40,000, although their population grew. By 1941, more poor whites than blacks had been disfranchised in Alabama, mostly due to effects of the cumulative poll tax. Estimates were that 600,000 whites and 500,000 blacks had been disfranchised.[2] With the disfranchisement of possible opposition, white Democrats established one-party rule in most of the South for more than 60 years.

African Americans and poor whites were totally shut out of the political process and left without representation. As blacks were segregated, millions of people were quickly affected, to devastating effect. The disfranchisement lasted well into the later decades of the 20th century. They were shut out of all offices at the local and state level, as well as Federal level. Those who could not vote could not serve on juries or in local offices. Segregated schools and services were consistently underfunded. Whites gave local sheriffs broad authority to enforce white supremacy.

Withdrawal of Congressional oversight[]

While Congress had actively intervened for more than 20 years in elections in the South which the House Elections Committee judged to be flawed, after 1896, it backed off from intervening. Many Northern legislators were outraged about the disfranchisement of blacks and some proposed stripping the South of seats in Congress. [3]

Supreme Court challenges[]

Although educated African Americans mounted legal challenges, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Mississippi's and Alabama's provisions in its rulings in Williams v. Mississippi (1898), Giles v. Harris (1903), and Giles v. Teasley. Booker T. Washington secretly helped fund and arrange representation for such legal challenges, raising money from northern patrons who helped support Tuskegee University.[4]

When white primaries were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Smith v. Allwright (1944), civil rights organizations rushed to register African-American voters. By 1947 the All-Citizens Registration Committee (ACRC) of Atlanta managed to get 125,000 voters registered in Georgia, raising black participation to 18.8% of those eligible. This was a major increase from the 20,000 on the rolls who had managed to get through administrative barriers in 1940.[5] Georgia, among other Southern states, passed new legislation (1958) to once again repress black voter registration.

It was not until African-American leaders gained passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the American citizens who were first granted suffrage by the Fifteenth Amendment after the Civil War finally regained the ability to exercise their right to vote.


  1. Richard H. Pildes, "Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon," Constitutional Commentary, Vol.17, 2000, pp.12-13, accessed 10 Mar 2008
  2. 2.0 2.1 Glenn Feldman, The Disfranchisement Myth: Poor Whites and Suffrage Restriction in Alabama, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004, p.136
  3. COMMITTEE AT ODDS ON REAPPORTIONMENT, The New York Times, 20 Dec 1900, accessed 10 Mar 2008
  4. Richard H. Pildes, "Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon," Constitutional Commentary, Vol.17, 2000, pp. 12 and 21], accessed 10 Mar 2008
  5. Chandler Davidson and Bernard Grofman, Quiet Revolution in the South: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, p.70


  • Perman, Michael. The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869-1879. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. ISBN 0-8078-4141-2
  • Richard H. Pildes, "Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon", Constitutional Commentary, 17, (2000).

See also[]

  • Redeemers
  • Disfranchisement after the Civil War