On March 24, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court banned poll taxes for state and local elections, which had been a loophole in the 24th Amendment that had abolished poll taxes only for federal elections. [Of course, we have seen variations of efforts to impose poll taxes continue, such as payment of fines before voting in Florida.]
The lawsuit that resulted in the demise of poll taxes was initiated on Nov. 29, 1963, by Joseph A. Jordan Jr., a civil rights attorney in Norfolk, Virginia, on behalf of his client, Evelyn T. Butts. Butts was an African American voting-rights crusader and seamstress, who was already busy supporting her three daughters and disabled husband, a World War II veteran. In March 1964, four residents of Fairfax County, Virginia — Annie E. Harper, Curtis Burr, Myrtle Burr, and Gladys A. Berry — filed a similar lawsuit, and the cases eventually were consolidated as Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections.
Virginia’s poll tax had been established in the state’s revised constitution of 1902 amid a movement among the former Confederate states to disenfranchise African Americans through a combination of poll taxes, literacy tests, and other devices of Jim Crow repression that undid Black political gains from the Reconstruction era. White supremacist politicians who engineered the poll taxes and other voter-suppression schemes often boasted of their work. Their ilk included Virginia’s Carter Glass, who proclaimed that the former Confederate states: “curse and deride and spit upon the 15th amendment — and have no intention of letting the Negro vote” because “White supremacy is too precious a thing to surrender for the sake of a theoretical justice that would let a brutish African deem himself the equal of white men and women in Dixie.”
The Virginia poll tax of $1.50 a year, which had to be paid three years consecutively and at least six months before an election, hurt African Americans the most but also stripped voting rights from many poor whites. However, by 1964, most states had decided to eliminate this discriminatory levy — leaving only Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas as diehards in imposing poll taxes for state and local elections.
The Supreme Court’s landmark decision, written by Justice William O. Douglas for the 6-3 majority, found that Virginia had violated the equal protection provision of the 14th Amendment and emphasized that “Fee payments or wealth, like race, creed, or color, are unrelated to the citizen’s ability to participate intelligently in the electoral process.”
Voting rights experts and historians say the high court’s ruling had deep effects on U.S. political history by empowering countless African Americans to participate in state and local elections and reinforcing democratic ideals. Alexander Keyssar, in The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States, observes that “Almost two centuries after the nation’s founding, economic restrictions on voting had been abolished in all general elections. … What once had been believed to be the most essential qualification for the franchise — the possession of property — officially had been judged irrelevant.”
Ronnie L. Podolefsky, in “Illusion of Suffrage: Female Voting Rights and the Women’s Poll Tax Repeal Movement after the Nineteenth Amendment” (Notre Dame L. Rev.839 1998), contends that the 1966 poll tax decision was important to the rights of poor African American women because it “was not decided as an issue of race or of gender, but rather upon one manifestation of the intersection of the two: the inability to participate in the political process by reason of poverty.” And Bruce Ackerman and Jennifer Nou in “Canonizing the Civil Rights Revolution: The People and the Poll Tax” (Northwestern Law Review, Vol. 103, 2009), celebrate the ruling as representing “a larger effort by the American people, during the 1960s, to create a more egalitarian democracy. Harper is not the product of an activist Court, but of an activist people.”
This day has extra significance in Evelyn T. Butts’ hometown of Norfolk. In winter 2020, the Norfolk Public Library and Norfolk Public Schools teamed up to sponsor its first Evelyn T. Butts Voting Rights Art & Essay Contest on the theme “African Americans and the Vote.” The competition drew 156 entries.
By Michael Knepler, who prepares periodic #tdih posts for the Zinn Education Project.