Evelyn Butts Challenged the Poll Tax, 1966
Following the Civil War, the United States ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution to secure civil liberties for African Americans. Under the Fifteenth Amendment, African Americans were guaranteed the right to vote. White southern politicians, however, looked for ways to bypass the amendment in order to prevent African Americans from voting in their states. A popular technique required advance payment of a poll tax, making it difficult and too expensive for poor African Americans and many whites to register to vote. As a result, many blacks were legally disenfranchised because they were poor, not because they were black, although the tax was instated with the intention of blocking black people's right to vote.
Virginia first imposed payment of a poll tax as a prerequisite to voting in 1876, which reduced the number of African American voters in the state, but it was repealed in 1882. The 1902 Constitution reinstituted the poll tax with the requirement, beginning in 1904, that any person who wished to register to vote had to prove he had paid a poll tax of $1.50 every year for three years preceding the election. Not only were most African Americans denied the right to vote under Virginia's 1902 Constitution, but poor white men became disenfranchised as well.
During the twentieth century several southern states removed the poll tax as a prerequisite to voting. At the time of the passage of the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution in 1964, banning the poll tax as a qualification to vote in federal elections, only five states retained the poll tax: Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and Virginia.
In November 1963, Evelyn Thomas Butts, an African American community activist from Norfolk, filed the first suit in a federal court seeking to have the poll tax declared unconstitutional. She argued that the poll tax put an unfair financial burden on citizens in the exercise of their constitutional rights of citizenship, which violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. In March 1964, Annie E. Harper and a group of people from Fairfax County filed another federal suit against the poll tax. The two cases were later combined. On March 24, 1966, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the combined cases called Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections that the poll tax in all elections violated the U.S. Constitution. The decision ended the use of the poll tax in Virginia, and a provision of the Virginia Constitution of 1971 explicitly prohibits requiring payment of a poll tax as a prerequisite to voting.
1. Who was Evelyn Thomas Butts?
2. What is a poll tax?
3. What did the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution declare?
1. Virginia has a long history of limiting access to the voting booth. Trace the history of voting requirements in Virginia's history through the provisions and omissions in its state constitution. How did Virginia's electoral policies affect poor whites, women, and African Americans?
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Lewis, Earl. In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, Virginia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Buni, Andrew. The Negro in Virginia Politics, 1902–1965. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967.
Wallenstein, Peter. Blue Laws and Black Codes: Conflict, Courts, and Change in Twentieth-century Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.