Back in control of the legislature in 1899, Democrats drafted a disfranchisement amendment to the state constitution that imposed a literacy test designed to take the vote away from their black opponents. In order to register to vote, male citizens would be required to prove their ability to read and write any section of the U.S. Constitution. That barred the 64 percent of black North Carolinians who were illiterate, along with many others who faced the whims of hostile white registrars.
“PERMANENT GOOD GOVERNMENT BY THE PARTY OF THE WHITE MAN”
In 1900, Democrat Charles Brantley Aycock (Class of 1880) campaigned for ratification of the disfranchisement amendment and election to the governor’s office. He and party leaders appealed to white racial unity and tried to undercut the voting power of American Indians. They barred members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee from the polls and attempted to win over skeptical Lumbees (then called Croatans) by promising protection from disfranchisement. Democrats also employed fraud and intimidation. Their victory established a system of whites-only politics that lasted until the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reopened the ballot box to all citizens.
After his death in 1912, Aycock was memorialized as North Carolina’s “Education Governor.” Supporters pointed out that he more than doubled school spending, opposed lawmakers who tried to prohibit the use of white tax receipts for black education, and launched a program to build thousands of rural schoolhouses. But many North Carolinians remembered that the Fusionists Aycock defeated had also valued education, and in the mid-1890s had funded white and black schools on a near-equal basis. That contrasted with sharp disparities under the Aycock administration. In 1905, the state spent less on rural black schools than in 1895, and during the years 1902 to 1905 annual school construction for whites outpaced that for blacks five- to eight-fold.
“These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people, faithful, industrious, loyal people [who] Phoenix-like will rise up some day and come again.” George White’s farewell address
GEORGE WHITE’S FAREWELL
Shortly after Governor Aycock’s inauguration in January, 1901, George White delivered a farewell address in which he urged fellow members of Congress to “obliterate race hatred.” White was the last black North Carolinian to serve in Congress until 1992, when Democrats Eva Clayton and Mel Watt were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
WOULD YOU HAVE PASSED THE LITERACY TEST?
Write from memory Article III of the U.S. Constitution. You don’t recall the words or even the branch of government that Article III established? You are illiterate and unqualified to vote.
White suprempacy and black disfranchisement stifled the political life of the state. Total Voter turnout, which had peaked at 84 percent in 1896, dropped to 50 percent in 1904, and by 1912 had declined to less than 30 percent.