National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax

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Founded in 1941, the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax was a coalition of labor, liberal, and civil rights organizations dedicated to expanding federal protection of voting rights in the South. The poll tax was one of a variety of methods adopted by southern states at the turn of the century to restrict voter participation. The cost of the poll tax varied from state to state, and became increasingly restrictive during the Depression. Since there were other laws and customs specifically designed to bar blacks from voting, such as the white primary, the poll tax was especially effective in disfranchising poor and working-class whites. In 1939, the Louisville Courier Journal estimated that as many as 64 percent of the white adult voters had been disfranchised in poll tax states.

When it was founded in 1938, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare made abolition of the poll tax its top priority. The Conference established a Committee on Civil Rights, headed by Joseph Gelders and Virginia Durr, to oversee this effort. Gelders and Durr, both natives of Alabama, concentrated their efforts on getting a bill introduced in Congress that would ban the poll tax in federal elections. With the support of California Congressman Lee Geyers, Durr and Gelders built a broad base of support among major labor, liberal, and civil rights organizations for anti-poll tax legislation.

In 1941, Durr and Gelders incorporated their coalition into the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax. Gelders soon enlisted in the army. As vice chairman of the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax, Durr led in orchestrating a major lobbying and educational effort. The Committee's supporting organizations included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Negro Congress, the American Federation of Labor, and the League of Women Voters. Eleanor Roosevelt was among the prominent figures who lent her active support to the effort. The National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax published a newsletter, The Poll Tax Repealer, and recruited a staff of volunteers, including a number of college students.

The struggle around the poll tax reflected the divide between the New Deal coalition within the Democratic Party and conservative southern Democrats. From 1941 to 1948, the Committee succeeded in getting three major bills introduced in Congress. The first bill, sponsored by Lee Geyers and Senator Claude Pepper of Florida, initiated the first full-scale congressional debate on federal protection of voting rights since the defeat of the Lodge election bill in 1890. Southern conservatives mounted a vigorous opposition, arguing that the bill was unconstitutional, and warning that any federal tampering with voting restrictions would ultimately compromise the South's ability to restrict black voter participation. Anti-poll tax legislation passed the House by increasingly wide margins, only to be tabled in the Senate by southern-led filibusters.

By the time it disbanded in 1948, the National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax had succeeded in forging a broad liberal-labor coalition that would play an increasingly important role in securing national support for the federal protection of civil rights and voting rights in the South.



Lawson, Steven F. Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South,1944–1969. 1976.

Patricia Sullivan

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National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax

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National Committee to Abolish the Poll Tax