Poll Taxes Are Outlawed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The poll tax was an arbitrary limitation on voting rights, particularly in the South, where it was often employed to deny the franchise to African Americans and poor whites. With the ratification of the Twenty-fourth Amendment, the tax was abolished.

Summary of Event

On January 23, 1964, the South Dakota Senate cast the deciding vote in the ratification process of the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment ended the poll tax as a condition of voting in federal elections. The real function of the tax had been to deny civil rights to racial minorities, especially Southern blacks. The Twenty-fourth Amendment, passage of which began in 1962, was only one part of a larger campaign of civil rights reform that came to a head with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Poll taxes Voting rights;poll taxes African Americans;voting rights Constitution, U.S.;Twenty-fourth Amendment[Twentyfourth Amendment] Twenty-fourth Amendment[Twentyfourth Amendment] [kw]Poll Taxes Are Outlawed (Jan. 23, 1964) [kw]Taxes Are Outlawed, Poll (Jan. 23, 1964) Poll taxes Voting rights;poll taxes African Americans;voting rights Constitution, U.S.;Twenty-fourth Amendment[Twentyfourth Amendment] Twenty-fourth Amendment[Twentyfourth Amendment] [g]North America;Jan. 23, 1964: Poll Taxes Are Outlawed[07940] [g]United States;Jan. 23, 1964: Poll Taxes Are Outlawed[07940] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 23, 1964: Poll Taxes Are Outlawed[07940] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 23, 1964: Poll Taxes Are Outlawed[07940] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Jan. 23, 1964: Poll Taxes Are Outlawed[07940] [c]Social issues and reform;Jan. 23, 1964: Poll Taxes Are Outlawed[07940] Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;civil rights Holland, Spessard L. Russell, Richard, Jr. Mansfield, Mike

Civil rights issues were central to the social questions that surfaced during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Beginning with the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, which disallowed school segregation, both courts and legislatures were engaged in the resolution of such issues. John F. Kennedy assumed office as president in 1961, at a time when the Civil Rights movement was taking on a direct-action character—undertaking mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, and occasional acts of violence—and opposition to it was being manifested in mass arrests, intimidation, and even murder. This trend convinced the new administration and its liberal supporters in Congress that the time had come to use federal legislation as well as the courts to initiate civil rights reform. The first target was the poll tax.

The poll tax, a uniform, direct, and personal tax levied upon individuals, was not a new phenomenon. It had existed in some states since the early 1900’s, and in others, such as New Hampshire, since colonial times, though not as a franchise prerequisite. All states with the poll tax allowed exceptions to it: military officers and men on active militia duty, veterans, and persons disabled as a result of gainful occupation and whose taxable property did not exceed $500, for example. The tax was nominal in most cases for those who did have to pay, being only $1.50 or $2.00 per year. The tax was cumulative, however, so that voters who came to register after having not paid the tax for a number of years might find themselves having to pay what for many poor people would be a considerable sum. To civil rights advocates, the poll tax paralleled literacy tests as a device to limit voting rights, and advocates were determined that both devices should be abolished. Even in Southern states where the poll tax was no longer used, literacy tests, closed registration lists, and straightforward intimidation were used to prevent African Americans from voting.

The process of reform had to begin somewhere, and Northern Democrats, acting upon inspiration from the Kennedy administration, began with the anti-poll-tax amendment process early in 1962. There was strong opposition from a Southern bloc of conservatives, mostly Democrats led by Richard Russell, Jr., a Democrat from Georgia, but it was not as strong as might have been expected.

The Senate majority leader was Mike Mansfield, a Democrat from Montana, and it was his responsibility to shepherd the legislation through the Senate. The anti-poll-tax amendment itself was sponsored by Spessard L. Holland, a Democrat from Florida, whose role might have appeared surprising since he was part of the Southern bloc. Holland, however, was no friend of the poll tax in any form and had led a successful campaign to abolish it in his own state in 1937.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator James Eastland Eastland, James , a Democrat from Mississippi and part of the Southern bloc, had conducted hearings on the poll tax and literacy tests for weeks, to little avail. On March 14, Senator Mansfield moved for Senate consideration of a bill to establish Alexander Hamilton’s New York home as a national monument, to which, it was suggested, the proposed constitutional amendment could be attached. The Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate Committee on the Judiciary wherein, according to liberal senators, civil rights issues tended to get lost, was effectively bypassed, and the Hamilton motion, with the expectation of its being linked to the anti-poll-tax amendment, was put before the Senate.

As soon as it appeared on the floor, the Southern conservative bloc began a “friendly” filibuster, so termed because the Southerners did not go all out to prevent the Hamilton resolution from coming to a vote. It is conceivable that the vote was considered a foregone conclusion, and the filibuster was merely for form’s sake. In any event, it endured for ten days, until, apparently, the participants ran out of words. Then Senator Holland introduced the preordained motion to substitute the language of the anti-poll-tax amendment for the language of the Hamilton resolution. This brought Senator Russell to his feet in protest: “We are adopting an absurd, farfetched, irrational, unreasonable, and unconstitutional method to get this amendment,” he charged. Others agreed, including Jacob K. Javits Javits, Jacob K. , a Republican from New York, who proposed that the Senate should act against the poll tax by simple legislation, and Paul H. Douglas Douglas, Paul H. , a Democrat from Illinois, who warned that, the questionable manner of the adoption notwithstanding, using the amendment process could itself prove the downfall of efforts to abolish the tax.

Nevertheless, the Holland motion was put to a vote, and on March 27 it passed the Senate by a margin of seventy-seven to sixteen. An amendment to the Constitution of the United States repealing the poll tax for all federal elections was then forwarded to the House of Representatives, where it was debated, dissected, promoted, and opposed in similar manner, until it passed that chamber in August, 1962. It was then up to the states to ratify the amendment by vote of their legislatures.

It was speculated widely during succeeding months that, on the premise that the anti-poll-tax amendment would pass the states and greatly broaden the base of the Southern electorate, the Democratic Democratic Party, U.S. leadership would work to break the power of the Southern bloc by promoting candidates who were more loyal to the national party to oppose the bloc’s members in the primaries. At least thirteen congressional seats were thought to be on a target list. Republican Party leaders were delighted, convinced by the Southerners’ defiant attitude that the Democrats had outsmarted themselves.

Meanwhile, the anti-poll-tax amendment was being considered by the states, and it was an uphill battle. The Arizona house, for example, approved the amendment in 1963, but it died in the state senate. By the end of the year, however, momentum toward ratification gathered, and by January 5, 1964, the amendment needed to be approved by only two more states. A few days later the number dropped to one, and on January 23 South Dakota’s senate voted thirty-four to zero in favor of ratification. The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution was law, requiring then only the further technicality of formal certification by the General Services Administration of the federal government. South Dakota was compelled to race through its vote in order to beat out Georgia as the deciding state. There was an irony in this, as Georgia was the home of Senator Richard Russell, Jr., the most outspoken opponent of the amendment in the early days of debate on the motion.

Significance

The anti-poll-tax amendment symbolized the liberal determination to institute civil rights reform. There was, however, opposition of nearly equal intensity. Three political proposals made in 1963 were meant to redress—or so their advocates claimed—the eroding of states’ rights by the federal government. In fact, this package aimed at countering the possible effects of impending civil rights legislation, including abolition of the poll tax. The first proposal sought to give the power to redraw congressional districts to state governments. Gerrymandering could then keep power out of the hands of racial minorities, even if minorities came to the polls in greater numbers after the Twenty-fourth Amendment was passed.

The second proposal placed the constitutional amendment process in the hands of the state legislatures, bypassing either Congress or a national convention. Under this plan, a two-thirds majority of the state legislatures could propose an amendment, and a three-fourths majority could make it part of the Constitution. The third proposal sought to create a “Court of the Union” that would review Supreme Court decisions on federal-state relations and would be made up of the chief justices of the fifty states. This court would have effectively nullified the Supreme Court as the final arbiter of constitutionality in matters touching upon civil rights, because most such matters touched in turn on federal-state relations.

None of these propositions came to fruition, but the Twenty-fourth Amendment did, abolishing the poll tax in federal elections. Within two months, however, Arkansas, one of the last states to cling to the poll tax, upheld in court the state constitution’s requirement of a poll tax for state and local elections. Later, a private election oversight organization found at least seven irregularities in the primary election process in Arkansas, including the fact that unauthorized persons were permitted to help count ballots. The organization discovered that, while the poll tax was no longer required for federal elections, there were many other devices available to skew elections in the way segregationists wanted.

Various avenues were taken to limit the impact of the new amendment even for federal elections. In Mississippi, state officials cracked down on minor violations of little-used aspects of the civil code as a device to intimidate members of the Congress of Racial Equality and others who were involved in voter registration drives among African Americans. Violence was used as well when African Americans congregated in anticipation of a protest march in Canton, Mississippi, in 1963. In Georgia, support for segregationist presidential candidate George C. Wallace Wallace, George C. led to black-white confrontations and violence. In Virginia, on the eve of the 1964 presidential election, a federal court upheld a state law requiring payment of the poll tax for the right to vote in local and state elections. Two years later, however, in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections (1966) Supreme Court, U.S.;voting rights the Supreme Court concluded that poll taxes violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution, and the last such tax was swept away. Abolition of the poll tax was a step in the right direction, but there was a long road still to travel before voting rights for minority groups would be secure at all levels of American politics. Poll taxes Voting rights;poll taxes African Americans;voting rights Constitution, U.S.;Twenty-fourth Amendment[Twentyfourth Amendment] Twenty-fourth Amendment[Twentyfourth Amendment]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. A sweeping, authoritative, well-conceived, and well-written account of the Civil Rights movement, concentrating on Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Not an academic treatment in the conventional sense but rather intensely personal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kelly, Alfred H., Winifred A. Harbison, and Herman Betz. The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development. 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. This chapter discusses in detail the Supreme Court cases and the contents of civil rights legislation, of which the Twenty-fourth Amendment was a part. It is particularly useful on those court cases that either struck down segregation rules or wiped away such voting restrictions as the poll tax and literacy tests.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matusow, A. J. The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. This volume traces the rise and fall of American postwar liberalism, concentrating on both the successes and the failures of liberal views and policies during the era of civil rights reform.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ortiz, Paul.“’Eat Your Bread Without Butter, but Pay Your Poll Tax!’: Roots of the African American Voter Registration Movement in Florida, 1919-1920.” In Time Longer than Rope: A Century of African American Activism, 1850-1950, edited by Charles M. Payne and Adam Green. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Explores the reaction to the poll tax and activists’ attempts to register African American voters in Florida. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Poll Taxes and Literacy Tests.” Congressional Digest 41 (May, 1962): 131-137. A careful and detailed explanation of the background of the poll tax and the process and content of the Senate debate leading to passage of the Twenty-fourth Amendment. The article proceeds in a detached and factual manner and lists specifically the nature of poll taxes as they existed in the several states as of May, 1962.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. A Thousand Days. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. An inside look at the Kennedy administration with observations on aspects of Kennedy’s civil rights policies, including abolition of the poll tax. Schlesinger was part of the Kennedy inner circle and an old-line Democrat. His view of the Kennedy years is not without bias; all the same, this is a masterful work and very useful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zelden, Charles L. The Battle for the Black Ballot: “Smith v. Allwright” and the Defeat of the Texas All-White Primary. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004. Study of the case in which African American disenfranchisement was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Bibliographic references and index.

France Grants Suffrage to Women

Supreme Court Rules African American Disenfranchisement Unconstitutional

Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation

Civil Rights Protesters Attract International Attention

King Delivers His “I Have a Dream” Speech

Three Civil Rights Workers Are Murdered

Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Congress Passes the Voting Rights Act

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