African American voters who arrived at the courthouse of Monroe County, Mississippi, to cast their ballots in the state elections of 1875 were met by three remarkably well-equipped companies of armed white men guarding the polls. There was a cavalry unit of 100 men; an infantry company of about 60 brandishing needle guns and revolvers; and even an artillery unit of 50 men, sporting brand-new army-style pistols—and a 24-pound cannon.
The captain of the guerrilla force addressed the 300 African American men who were waiting to vote: "Not one of you shall cast your vote here today." He said that unless they dispersed within three minutes, he would open fire with the cannon and shoot down every one of them. They left.
It was a scene repeated throughout the state. African Americans and pro-civil rights white Republicans in Yazoo County, Mississippi, had polled a two-thousand vote majority just two years earlier; in 1875 they lost by a vote of 4,044 to 7.
For the next two decades, white supremacists across the South retained power through a relentless campaign of violence, fraud, and intimidation to suppress the black vote.
One of the first acts of the forces of white reaction upon regaining control of the Southern state governments was to enact a series of increasing bureaucratic hurdles to voter registration with the unabashed aim of institutionalizing the fraud that brought them into power. Registration offices and polling places in heavily black areas were closed; voters were required to re-register at difficult times of the year in unannounced locations; voters who failed to show up to register at the right time in the right place would be permanently stricken off the rolls.
This campaign of voter suppression would culminate in state constitutional conventions called by all of the Southern states in the 1890s and early 1900s with the explicit aim of permanently restricting voting rights. As one delegate to the 1890 Mississippi constitutional convention openly declared:
“Sir, it is no secret that there has not been a full vote and a fair count in Mississippi since 1875, that we have been preserving the ascendancy to the white people by revolutionary methods. In other words we have been stuffing ballot boxes, committing perjury, and here and there in the state carrying the elections by fraud and violence."
Or, as another white Mississippian explained, “The old men of the present generation can’t afford to die and leave their children with shotguns in their hands, a lie in their mouths and perjury on their souls, in order to defeat the negroes. The constitution can be made so this will not be necessary.”
The new voting and registration requirements basically eliminated the black vote in the South, a situation that would remain unchanged until the 1960s and the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act. (In my adopted fair state of Virginia, black voter registration fell from about 100,000 to 10,000 following the adoption of the 1902 state constitution. To get around the difficulty of getting African Americans voters to agree to disfranchise themselves, the Virginia constitutional convention simply ignored the requirement that the new constitution be ratified by a popular vote, and declared the constitution adopted.)
The fondly cherished bogeyman of today's Republicans of "voter fraud" in the form of individuals impersonating others at the polls has essentially zero basis in history or reality: On the contrary, the real history of voter fraud is the use of legal or quasi-legal mechanisms to intimidate, restrict, and suppress legitimate voting by those who threatened the conservative elite's lock on power.
Current Republican attempts to justify the curtailment of early voting, the imposition of new ID requirements at the polls, and other restrictions in the name of discouraging fraud are especially ironic. These restrictions are in fact a perpetuation of exactly the same species of legalized fraud and voter intimidation that characterized one of the most shameful chapters of American democracy.
You can read more about the institutionalized fraud, intimidation, and violence that carried the elections in the post-Reconstruction South in my book The Bloody Shirt.