1915 June 21

“Grandfather” Clauses Unconstitutional


In Guinn v. United States, decided on this day, the Supreme Court held that “grandfather” clauses were unconstitutional. Grandfather clauses were 19th century laws that exempted people from voter literacy tests if a grandfather had been a registered voter, had voted in some other country, or had served in the armed forces before 1866. The clauses were designed to permit illiterate white voters, but not African-Americans, to vote. The decision invalidated clauses in Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia and North Carolina laws.

The terms “grandfather clause” and “grandfathered in” have entered the English language as any law or practice by which people are exempted from a new law if their past practice was in violation of it.

The Court: “The so-called Grandfather Clause of the amendment to the constitution of Oklahoma of 1910 is void because it violates the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

Learn more about the history of the “grandfather clause:” http://www.blackpast.org/aah/grandfather-clause-1898-1915

And more about its racial history: http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/10/21/239081586/the-racial-history-of-the-grandfather-clause

Learn more about African American history: Henry Louis Gates, Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 (2011)

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