So, what IS a poll tax?
As far back as the 14th century, poll taxes were used to create revenue, as well as maintain caste and class systems by taxing individuals at a fixed amount, rather than based on income, in the United States. It almost exclusively applied to taxing certain individuals when they went to vote. At first, in the United States, poll taxes were applied to white males in the 1730s who were between the ages of 21 to 60 years old, and who were indentured servants with masters who were required to pay the tax for his servants and himself. This tax was not renewed, and when it appeared again 20 years later, it applied to “all [free] Negros, mulattoes and mestizos” between 10 to 60 years old and did not apply to whites. There were some variations of this tax over the years up to the period of Reconstruction in the late 19th Century.
In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified and stated:
“[T]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
The 15th Amendment guaranteed former slaves the right to vote, but many southern states adopted a poll tax to circumvent the amendment. Poll taxes starting after the Civil War were a form of disfranchising many blacks, as well as poor whites. Conditions and requirements to vote included: payment of either one or two dollars, time limit of two and a half minutes to cast the vote, proof of being a descendant of a person who voted prior to the Civil War, meeting educational provisions such as the ability to read and write any section of the constitution, and the owning of property worth at least $300. In one case, a state used special ballot boxes for each office on the ballot and prohibited voting officials from speaking with voters who could not read the labeled boxes, thus requiring literacy to read and cast a vote in the correct box.
Seventy years later in 1943, some states continued to disregard the U.S. Constitution, still using the poll tax, showing deeply entrenched discrimination and segregation. These states were Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
In the early 1940s, the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax was formed by Lee Geyer, Democratic Congressman from California’s 17th district. The purpose was to repeal the National, as well as state, poll tax. They vigorously lobbied for supporters, including the American Federation of Labor (AFL). William Green, President of the AFL, and H. W. Brown, International President of the International Association of Machinists, were interested in lifting the poll tax because it would improve the basic human rights of their Southern unions and members, while also decreasing segregation in the work force. Green corresponded on several occasions with George H. Bender, who was Congressional Chairman of the coalition group to pass H.R 7, a Discharge Petition to abolish the poll tax as a requirement for voting in Federal elections. Green and Brown were actively monitoring anti-poll tax legislation and supporting the cause by lobbying union affiliates to contact their congressional representatives to ask them to sign petitions in favor of H.R. 7, and vote against any amendments to the bill.
The ability to vote is an essential democratic right, and an important aspect of the history of the Civil Rights Movement to gain that right for black voters. The AFL and its affiliate unions fought alongside civil rights leaders in the long battle to abolish the poll tax and other limitations on voting privileges. The southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Virginia, and Texas continued the use of the poll tax with varying means of disfranchisement to limit voting privileges into the 1950s, while one state kept the tax until 1966.
The last state to end the poll tax was Mississippi, on April 8, 1966.
It’s hard to believe just how recently the poll tax was abolished: only 52 years ago! In light of the current political climate, in which a number of minority groups are fighting for equality, it’s not quite as hard to believe that the poll tax continued as long as it did and there is still more progress needed to improve civil rights in the U.S. In participating in the work of anti-poll tax legislation, the Civil Rights Act legislation, and Operation Big Vote of the 1970s, the labor movement made important strides towards improving workers’ rights, in the 1940s to 1970s, and in the present day.
Jen Eidson is a Special Collections Processing Archivist in the University of Maryland Libraries.