From editorial page of The Independent, Elizabeth City, N.C., Friday, March 18, 1927, W.O. Saunders, Editor and Publisher.
The Negro and the Ballot
The recent decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, that Negroes under the Constitution of the United States have the right to participate in state primaries and cannot be deprived of that privilege by state law, was inevitable. That the disfranchisement of the Negro in many Southern States has been effectively maintained for something like a quarter of a century with Federal opposition has been due largely to the fact that the Negro has never put up a serious fight for the rights of franchise guaranteed to him under the fourteenth amendment of the Federal Constitution.
The reason the Negro has not put up a serious fight for his rights has been due in the main to the tact, patience and meek commonsense of Negro leaders thruout the South who have suffered the humiliation of disfranchisement in silence because they recognized and appreciated the elements of justice and reason in the Southern white man’s contention that the masses of the Negroes in the South were intellectually incapable of exercising the right of franchise.
The case from Texas which went up to the Supreme Court at Washington was easy to dispose of because Texas made an outright discrimination against the Negro because of his color. Here in North Carolina we disfranchise the Negro in a more polite way, but not less effectively.
In a constitutional amendment adopted in 1902 we denied the franchise to the Negro by stipulating that “Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.”
As a larger percentage of Negro voters in the State could not so read and write back in 1902, the Negro was effectually disfranchised. There was not a word said about color in our amendment. It discriminated against illiterate whites and blacks alike. But the illiterate whites were shrewdly taken care of. The amendment excepted any male person who was entitled to vote on Jan. 1, 1867 or any time prior thereto, or any of his lineal descendants. Not a word was said about color there, but Negroes were not voting in North Carolina prior to Jan. 1, 1867 so the “grandfather clause” didn’t help them; it did prevent every white cracker in the state from being disfranchised because of his illiteracy.
But it is not in the amendment to our state constitution so much as in its enforcement that the Negro has been denied the vote for years. The Negro has made great strides in educational progress in a quarter of a century and millions who could not qualify for registration by reading and writing a section of the constitution a few years ago, can very well qualify to-day. That they do not qualify is because the enforcement of the amendment is in the hands of Democratic registrars who will not permit them to qualify.
How it works is well illustrated by a case that came to my personal attention here in Elizabeth City a few years ago. Two well-educated colored women tried to register in a certain precinct. The registrar told them they would have to read and write the constitution. The registrar couldn’t read it and write it correctly himself. But the two women proceeded to read and write as directed. The registrar saw with alarm that they were going to qualify. He took the book containing the constitution away from them, closed it up and told them they would have to write from memory. He kept the two colored women off the registration books and got away with it. They did not go to court or make any fight for their rights. If they had gone to law and gotten by a biased local county judge to the Supreme Court they would have won their right to the franchise and have established a suit for damages against that registrar as well. “That private damage may be caused by such political action and may be recovered for in a suit at law hardly has been doubted for two hundred years,” according to the recent Supreme Court decision.
Ultimately and at no far distant date the Negro will regain the franchise in every Southern State. It is his right under a white man’s constitution in the making of which the black man had no hand. I am not setting myself up as a defender of the Negro’s rights in the matter; I have other troubles enough, God knows. I merely state a fact of which all of us should take cognizance.