Legacy Vote No More

The terror of Wilmington in 1898 took on historic proportions in the months and years after the massacre. Democrats frequently referenced their role in saving Wilmington from “negro domination.” This term came in handy as they intensified their propaganda campaign to disfranchise African Americans, destroy the Fusion coalition, and restore Democrats to leadership. In a bitter and contested election on August 2, 1900, voters passed a constitutional amendment known as “Article VI. Suffrage and Eligibility to Office – Qualifications of an Elector.” The most controversial requirements in the amendment appeared in Sections 4 and 5. Section 4 [pdf] restricted voting rights to men who “read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language” and had paid their poll tax by the March 1 previous to the election. Section 5 instituted a “grandfather clause” that guaranteed voting privileges only to those voters who were entitled to vote or who had a lineal descendent who could vote on January 1, 1867, provided they registered before December 1, 1908. Thus, men who had once been slaves and any illiterate man unable to register before December 1, 1908 were disfranchised. William W. Kitchin supported the Amendment in a November 15, 1899 letter to the Wilkesboro Chronicle. How does Kitchin reconcile the amendment as constitutional under the 14th and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution? On March 14, 1900, the Chronicle published a letter by John Cunningham, who argued that the amendment protected civilization from “the tyranny of the mob.” George W Rountree’s “Memorandum of my Personal Reasons for the Passage of the Suffrage Amendment to the Constitution” references the influence on the North Carolina amendment by legislation from two southern states. The “Louisiana Plan” provided the example of the grandfather clause and the “Mississippi Plan” offered the literacy requirement. In a speech delivered on April 11, 1900, Charles B. Aycock, Democratic nominee for Governor, argued that the amendment saves the whites “by boldly recognizing the claim of their hereditary fitness.” How does Aycock respond to criticisms that the literacy and poll tax requirements will disfranchise not only blacks but also poor and illiterate whites?