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Many are aware of what the term “grandfather clause” means. It is a clause creating an exemption based on previously existing circumstances. Ratified in 1870, the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibited voter discrimination based on race. Even with this amendment, Black voters living in the South were prevented from voting in large numbers for nearly a century after its passage. Added to the amendment were new voter requirements, such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and residency/property ownership restrictions. Southern states would exempt white citizens from these new requirements if their ancestors (grandfathers) had the right to vote before the Civil War. Clearly, little to no Black voters would be able to meet these requirements.
The goal and result were to keep poor, formerly enslaved, Black people and their descendants from voting while allowing poor white people to vote. The Guinn versus the United States Supreme Court case struck down grandfather clauses in 1915. However, poll taxes, literacy tests, property ownership, and other requirements remained intact. The 1965 Voting Rights Act abolished literacy tests and other forms of voter suppression. However, states have found new and improved ways to continue black voter suppression that is still present today.
There has been debate over the years about whether or not the “grandfather clause” term should be dropped and another used in its place due to its racist origins. Some feel that in its present-day use, the word has been “deracialized” and is no longer offensive. Some organizations are switching to the word “legacy” as a substitute. It should also be noted that the term “grandfather” also highlighted that women did not have voting rights at the time.
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