The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.
The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The Constitution of the United States describes in detail a government of elected officials, but it does not set out clear rules for who may vote in elections. In an effort to clarify this vagueness, several amendments have been passed to ensure that the right to vote is not limited unfairly. The Twenty-fourth Amendment clearly forbids the federal government or any state government from requiring that voters pay any kind of fee before they can vote.
This was a necessary amendment to the Constitution. In the decades following the end of the Civil War (1861–65), the southern states used unfair election practices to prevent African Americans from exercising their right to vote. One of the most effective practices was the poll tax. Beginning with Georgia in 1875, southern legislatures passed poll tax laws that were specifically designed “so that … the Negro shall never be heard from again,” in the words of Georgia politician Robert Toombs, as quoted in Constitutional Amendments:1789 to the Present. By 1910, poll taxes were on the books in Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas, and Tennessee—all the states that had formerly seceded (separated) from the Union and had called themselves the Confederate States of America.
The roots of the southern poll tax lay in the deep divisions between whites and blacks that began with the practice of slavery. These divisions continued even after the end of the Civil War, when several constitutional amendments were passed. The amendments ended slavery and granted black males the right to vote. Southern whites were afraid of the political power (and possibly the anger) of the newly freed blacks, so they took extreme steps to limit that power. But it was not only in the South that racism was at work. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected challenge after challenge to the poll tax laws of the South. It took the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to pass lasting legislation against the discriminatory poll tax—almost one hundred years after poll taxes started.
Submitted by Congress to the states on August 27, 1962.
Ratified by the required three-fourths of states (thirty-eight of fifty) on January 23, 1964, and by one more state on February 25, 1977. Declared to be part of the Constitution on February 4, 1964.
Illinois, November 14, 1962; New Jersey, December 3, 1962; Oregon, January 25, 1963; Montana, January 28, 1963; West Virginia, February 1, 1963; New York, February 4, 1963; Maryland, February 6, 1963; California, February 7, 1963; Alaska, February 11, 1963; Rhode Island, February 14, 1963; Indiana, February 19, 1963; Utah, February 20, 1963; Michigan, February 20, 1963; Colorado, February 21, 1963; Ohio, February 27, 1963; Minnesota, February 27, 1963; New Mexico, March 5, 1963; Hawaii, March 6, 1963; North Dakota, March 7, 1963; Idaho, March 8, 1963; Washington, March 14, 1963; Vermont, March 15, 1963; Nevada, March 19, 1963; Connecticut, March 20, 1963; Tennessee, March 21, 1963; Pennsylvania, March 25, 1963; Wisconsin, March 26, 1963; Kansas, March 28, 1963; Massachusetts, March 28, 1963; Nebraska, April 4, 1963; Florida, April 18, 1963; Iowa, April 24, 1963; Delaware, May 1, 1963; Missouri, May 13, 1963; New Hampshire, June 12, 1963; Kentucky, June 27, 1963; Maine, January 16, 1964; South Dakota, January 23, 1964; Virginia, February 25, 1977.
From Reconstruction to the Black Codes
To understand the importance of the Twenty-fourth Amendment, it is important to understand the society from which it grew. This story begins with the end of slavery. Once the Civil War was over, U.S. legislators realized that the end of the war was only the beginning of their work to bring the nation back together.
The period from the end of the war in 1865 to 1877 was called the Reconstruction era. Reconstruction means rebuilding, and the Reconstruction era was a period of rebuilding the South on several levels. On the physical level, much of the land and many of the buildings in the South had been destroyed by the terrible fighting. Cities and farms had to be rebuilt. On the political level, the South had to develop a new economy that did not depend on slavery. The states that had withdrawn from the Union had to be readmitted into the United States. The country had to figure a way to reunite in peacetime, and this newly reunited nation had almost four million new citizens—the freed slaves.
Congress quickly proposed three new amendments to the Constitution in order to define the status of the no longer enslaved black Americans. Between 1865 and 1870, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were ratified. These amendments gave former slaves the status of citizenship, equality under the law, and the right to vote.
Southern governments reorganize
Having survived generations of slavery during which they had few rights, the new African American citizens were ready and eager to exercise their new rights to vote and to hold office. White northerners, who had moved south and were called carpetbaggers because of their cloth suitcases, teamed up with white southern Republicans (called scalawags by southern Democrats), and the new black voters to reorganize the governments of the southern states.
Republicans quickly voted out the traditional Democratic politicians of the South, which created radical Republican governments that included black representatives for the first time. By 1868, these new governments had set up a public school system, along with other social services. They also established the Freedmen’s Bureau to safeguard the rights of black Americans. Interracial governments started functioning productively, especially in Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana. These new governments looked remarkably different from previous southern governments. By 1870, for instance, there were thirty black state representatives and five black senators in the state of Mississippi.
The Old South responds.
White southerners were angry and frightened by the enormous changes to their way of life. The South had just suffered a bitter defeat in the Civil War, a conflict that costs hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed much of the South’s property and infrastructure.. The sudden changes brought by Reconstruction seemed like one more humiliating defeat. Landowners were infuriated to lose their power. Seeing that power transferred into the hands of their former slaves and “Yankees” (as they called northerners) made them even more resentful.
During the centuries of slave-owning, white landowners had convinced themselves that blacks were not really people. This tradition caused them to resist accepting the new citizens as their equals. With what political power they had left, they began to enact laws they called “black codes” in the 1870s. These codes were aimed at keeping black southerners second-class citizens. To enforce white supremacy, whites organized themselves into secret societies such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Society of the White Rose, groups which tried to frighten blacks with threats and physical violence. For example, in 1869, white Democrats in Mobile, Alabama, aimed a cannon at black citizens who were lined up to vote, forcing them to run for their lives.
By 1877, these tactics of suppression, threats, and violence had worked. Northern support for African Americans dwindled. The U.S. Supreme Court overruled much of the civil rights legislation that the radical Republicans in the 39th Congress had passed. The Democrats who had been booted out of southern legislatures were elected again, as whites once more controlled the elections. In turn, these legislators enacted laws that cut the rights of black Americans almost back to slavery. The new governments in which black and white legislators worked together were gone. Though no longer slaves, blacks had little economic or political power, and the new laws were meant to ensure that things stayed that way.
Poll Taxes: Not Always at the Polls
In the United States, the poll tax has long been associated with voting, but it actually had nothing to do with voting when it began. The word poll comes from Middle English, and, before that, from a Danish word meaning the crown of the head. The poll tax, therefore, was simply a head tax, or a tax that everyone paid simply for living in the area that was taxed. American usage of the word “poll” to refer to the place where people vote also comes from the idea of counting heads. But until the nineteenth century, the poll tax was not related to voting.
Historically poll taxes have been used by many governments to raise money. In addition, they were sometimes used to penalize people who were not part of the ruling group. As far back as the Greek and Roman empires, people who had been conquered by the empire were forced to pay a head tax. From 1691 until 1839, the Ottoman Turks levied a poll tax on all non-Muslim people within the huge Ottoman Empire.
Also in many European countries, the poll tax was an important source of revenue up to the 1800s. Even then, many people considered the tax unfair. Placing the same tax on everyone’s “head” is considered regressive. That is, poor people must pay the same tax as rich people, even though it is much harder for them to come up with the money. As a result of this inequity, poor people have often protested when they have been ordered to pay a poll tax.
When King Richard II of England imposed a poll tax, he incited the bloody Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. During this revolt, four of the king’s ministers were beheaded. Almost three centuries later, in 1649, King Charles I lost his head for many unpopular taxation policies—among them, the hated poll tax. Still, British governments have continued to levy poll taxes, even into the early 2000s. In 1990, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher began a new poll tax that set off riots in London and inspired wide-scale tax resistance in Scotland.
Jim Crow and the Loss of the Vote
In their effort to make sure black Americans were unable to gain equal status with whites, white southerners used two approaches. One was the application of segregation laws, which prevented blacks and whites from using the same public services or facilities. Such policies led to separate train cars, bathrooms, and water fountains for the two races. These laws and segregation policies in general were nicknamed “Jim Crow” laws, after the caricature of black man in a minstrel show. Segregation kept whites and blacks apart, limited what kinds of facilities were available to blacks, and reinforced the southern notion that the races were fundamentally different. This approach also drove a wedge between poor white southerners and blacks, who might otherwise have had much in common.
The other approach to keeping power in white hands was to keep blacks from voting. When the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, the southern states could not take the vote away. But they could—and did—create new laws that made it almost impossible for black citizens to cast their vote.
Many of the states actually rewrote their constitutions just to add obstacles that prevented large numbers of African Americans from voting. The new laws often demanded literacy tests for voters, and many blacks could not read. There were other approaches to limiting black voting rights, such as holding primaries to pick candidates where only whites could vote or grandfather clauses that stated individuals could only vote if they or their ancestors were eligible to vote prior to 1867, which effectively allowed poor whites to vote but eliminated former slaves or those descended from slaves from doing so. But, the most effective obstacle to black suffrage, or voting, was the poll tax.
The poll tax
The poll tax of the late 1800s and early 1900s, as applied by white southern state governments, was different than other forms of poll tax. Its specific purpose was not to raise revenue, but to prevent black voters from exercising political power.
This is how the poll tax worked: state law required each voting citizen to pay a tax, from one to several dollars a year, depending on the state. The tax had to be paid at least six months before an election. At election time, each voter had to show a receipt to prove that he or she had paid the tax, not only for that year but for preceding years as well. Though the tax was low, it represented a considerable amount for poor people. What was worse, if a citizen did not pay the tax one year, the state added penalties and interest, which meant that by the next year the fee was much higher. Voters who had not paid for several years would face a tax that had grown to an amount they could never afford to pay. If they could not come up with the money, they could not vote.
The southern poll tax was an extremely regressive tax. That is, it affected poor people much more than the wealthy. As such, it affected poor whites too, and sometimes prevented them from voting. When politicians needed more votes, however, they could “buy” white votes by simply paying their poll taxes for them. By 1910, eleven of the southern states used a poll tax, among other devices, to interfere with black voters. They succeeded remarkably well. One example shows the devastating effect of the new laws on black suffrage. In 1900, Richmond, Virginia, had 6,427 black voters. By 1907, the number had dropped to 228.
Trying to Defeat the Poll Tax
As blatantly unfair as using devices such as the poll tax to prevent black Americans from voting seems in the early 2000s, bitter white southerners were not the only ones who supported these bigoted laws. Time after time, when black citizens and others challenged the legality of the poll tax, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the states’ rights to have such a tax. In general, the Court was reluctant to limit the powers of the states. For almost sixty years the Supreme Court maintained that setting the rules about who could vote was a power that belonged to the individual states. Several courts agreed that since everyone had to pay the poll tax, it was not a discriminatory tax—even if it was used in a discriminatory way. The poll tax remained in place all over the South for decades.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke out in the 1930s against the southern poll taxes. In Constitutional Amendments: 1789 to the Present, President Roosevelt is quoted as saying they were “contrary to fundamental democracy.” However, presidents are politicians as well, and political pressure from the South made Roosevelt soften his opposition to the tax.
Other reformers did work to abolish the tax, however. White southerner Virginia Foster Durr had helped found the Civil Rights Committee of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare to offer legal advice and support for black voters. Reformers succeeded in getting the poll tax repealed in three states: Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina. However, in the states that still had the tax, change was slow in coming. Even if reformers managed to propose bills to end the poll tax, southern legislators could stall bills in Congress by talking and debating endlessly until the session was over. This type of stalling technique is called a filibuster.
The Second Reconstruction
The 1940s brought the United States into World War II (1939–45). Many changes took place in U.S. politics and attitudes. During the war itself, a blow was struck at the poll tax: the Soldier Vote Act of 1942 allowed soldiers fighting overseas to vote by absentee ballot without paying a poll tax. The war brought other new opportunities to black Americans. They worked in the defense industries, just as whites did. They served in the armed forces, just as whites did. Going abroad, they experienced less racial prejudice in other societies. All of this made it difficult for African Americans to return to their place at the bottom of American society, especially in the segregated South.
Blacks continued to face discrimination and segregation as they worked in the war industries. The flood of black workers going North to work in factories led to fear and hostility. Tensions erupted in race riots. The worst riots were in Detroit, Michigan, in June 1943.
The armed forces themselves were still segregated, and a ten percent quota limited how many black Americans could serve. With the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, black citizens worked to persuade President Franklin Roosevelt to eliminate discrimination within the war effort. On June 25, 1941, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission to lessen discrimination in the war industries, the armed services, and the federal government. But the order was not very effective.
The struggle to end segregation after the war
After the war, individual blacks and organizations such as the NAACP continued to work to end Jim Crow segregation in the South. Right after the war, and continuing through the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights workers in the South began the struggle to eliminate the obstacles to black suffrage. They held voter registration drives and helped blacks register to vote, pass literacy tests, and pay their poll taxes. Some political activists from the North were inspired by the changes happening in the South. They went to the southern states to help in the movement.
Even though angry whites tried to stop them, African American activists and their supporters continued to protest unfair conditions and worked to win equal rights for black citizens. In fact, much of the civil rights movement’s success came about because black Americans responded to white violence with quiet determination and non-violent protests. Black civil rights leaders such as Rosa Parks of Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. of Georgia, and Bayard Rustin of Pennsylvania encouraged activists to use non-violent resistance, that is, to work for their rights using peaceful tactics. Across the United States these peaceful strategies gained much sympathy for black Americans and belief in universal civil rights.
Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott.
The Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott is a good example of how non-violent tactics work. (A boycott is a political tactic in which a group of people refuses to use a product or service in order to protest some objection to the product or service.) Rosa Parks was a longtime member of the Alabama NAACP. In December 1955, she chose to protest the segregation of buses in Montgomery. Blacks were required by law to sit in the back of buses and to stand if the white section in front was filled and a white passenger was standing. Instead of giving up her seat in the black section to a white passenger, Parks did not fight or argue. She simply stayed seated and refused to move, resulting in her arrest.
The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had studied non-violent resistance as practice in India by Mohandas Gandhi and as explained in Henry David Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience . Bayard Rustin, a political organizer, had learned about non-violence from his Quaker grandparents. They heard of Parks’s action and began to organize a boycott of the Montgomery buses. Instead of fighting or responding with anger, the black citizens of Montgomery simply refused to ride the bus. Those blacks who rode the bus were often poor and may have seemed powerless, but the bus company needed the revenue from their tickets. The boycott dramatically publicized the cause of civil rights across the nation. It was not easy for poor people who did not own cars to refuse to ride the bus, but they managed by walking and carpooling with supporters of their cause. It took a whole year, but on December 20, 1956, the Supreme Court forced the bus company to change its policy of discrimination and integrate the Montgomery buses.
Opening the way for the poll tax amendment
The civil rights movement continued to win important political victories. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), the Supreme Court ruled that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. This significant victory for civil rights sanctioned blacks and whites attending classes together and enjoying the same quality of education. For the first time, the Court imposed a federal law about the treatment of blacks in the separate states. This action finally opened the way to defeat the poll tax that had prevented black Americans from voting for over half a century.
Even with all the changes brought about by the growing civil rights movement, it took several more tries before the bill proposing the abolition of the poll tax finally got to Congress—attached to the end of another bill. Even then, the poll tax amendment was debated and switched from bill to bill for two years. The proposed amendment passed the Senate on March 27, 1962, by a vote of 77 to 16. It passed the House on August 27, 1962, by a vote of 294 to 86, and on that date was sent to the states for ratification. Most southern states refused to consider the amendment. Only one southern state—Tennessee—passed it. But northern states rallied behind it, and the amendment received the thirty-eight state votes needed for ratification in January 1964.
In the summer of 1908 violence erupted in Springfield, Illinois—the former home town of the nation’s sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865). Several days of race riots there ended with the death or injury of dozens of black citizens. Thousands more left Springfield, trying to escape the trouble.
Many were overcome with frustration and anger at the treatment of African Americans. Journalist William Walling, social worker and activist Mary White Ovington, and New York Evening Post publisher Oswald Garrison Villard called for all believers in democracy to come to a conference to discuss the plight of African Americans. Thousands responded. On May 30, 1909, out of this conference, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was born.
Members of the new organization were angry and dismayed over the condition of black citizens. Issues of particular concern were voting rights, segregation, access to education, and violence against blacks. They criticized the South for its repressive and racist policies; they criticized the North for taking little positive action to help blacks; and they criticized the Supreme Court for refusing to stop the states’ abuses. They decided to use their newly formed organization to help.
The NAACP went to work immediately. Members made public speeches and influenced politicians about equal rights for black Americans. They fought discrimination and segregation through the courts. They started Crisis, a magazine about the issues of civil rights and discrimination. The magazine was edited for years by W. E. B. Du Bois.
One of the NAACP’s first goals was to stop racial violence, especially lynching. (Lynching is an execution of someone without due process of law, often by hanging. Blacks were often lynched by angry mobs of whites for either real or imagined crimes.) In 1911, as the NAACP was getting started, there were 71 lynchings across the United States—63 of them killing blacks. The NAACP focused American attention on the violence of lynch mobs by holding silent demonstrations, placing large newspaper ads, and using political pressure, even on the president, which resulted in a decrease in lynchings, and by 1950, had almost stopped them entirely.
In 1920, James Weldon Johnson became the NAACP’s first black executive secretary. Johnson expanded the organization’s membership in the South. Under his leadership, membership grew to ninety thousand. Johnson served until 1930. He was followed by Walter White, who served until 1955. Together, Johnson and White increased the strength and influence of the NAACP until it became the most powerful and best-known civil rights organization in the country. The NAACP also used some of the finest lawyers in the country, including Charles Hamilton Houston—known as “the Man Who Killed Jim Crow”—and his protégé Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The NAACP continued to grow. As of 2007, it reported over 300,000 members. In the early 2000s, the NAACP continued its work to resolve inequality. According to its Web site, its goals are: “to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of minority group citizens of the United States and eliminate race prejudice.”
The End Effects of the Poll Tax
The Twenty-fourth Amendment abolished the poll tax. By 1966, after a series of Supreme Court cases, the Court ruled that the poll tax was illegal in federal elections and individual states could not require a poll tax for voting in state elections either. In Harman v. Forssenius (1966), the Court struck down a Virginia law that required voters to pay a poll tax or file a notarized certificate of residency before voting. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren reasoned that the Virginia law imposed a “cumbersome procedure” upon those voters who sought to forego the poll tax and try to comply with the registration requirement. He added that “the Virginia poll tax was born of a desire to disenfranchise the Negro.” Although this decision and others angered some who thought the Court was trespassing into state matters, it proved to be the best way to render illegal any prejudicial laws that existed in different regions.
The Twenty-fourth Amendment led to civil rights laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Act forbids racial discrimination in education, employment, and use of public facilities. The Voting Rights Act rendered illegal all state obstacles to black suffrage.
Twenty-Fourth Amendment Challenges
Several states have passed laws limiting the forms of photo identification that voters can present in order to vote. The states assert that such measures are necessary to combat voter fraud. For example, Georgia passed a law in 2005 that eliminated eleven forms of photo identification, such as gun licenses or valid employee or student ID cards, which would be sufficient as proof to vote. Under Georgia’s new law, voters had to present one of six types of identification, one of which was a valid driver’s license photo.
A group of nonprofit organizations and plaintiffs challenged the law as a violation of both the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause and the Twenty-fourth Amendment. The plaintiffs contended that the new Georgia law amounted to a constructive poll tax. A federal district court in Common Cause/Georgia v. Billups (2006) rejected the poll tax argument under the Twenty-fourth Amendment but still invalidated the law on equal-protection grounds.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Dudziak, Mary L. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America) . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Freedman, Russell. Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. New York: Holiday House, 2006.
Kousser, J. Morgan. Colorblind Injustice: Minority Voting Rights and the Undoing of the Second Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Lawson, Steven F. Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969. Lanham, MA: Lexington Books, 1999.
Lawson, Steven F. Debating the Civil Rights Movement, 1945–1968 (Debating 20th Century America). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.
Palmer, Kris E., ed. Constitutional Amendments: 1789 to the Present. Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale, 2000.
Smith, Jean Edward. FDR. New York: Random House, 2007.
Wunsh, Mitchell K. “No Photo Necessary: Georgia’s Short-Lived Voter-Photo Statute.” George Mason University Civil Rights Law Journal 17 (2006).
NAACP. (accessed September 14, 2007) .
"Twenty-fourth Amendment." Constitutional Amendments: From Freedom of Speech to Flag Burning. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 24, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/law/legal-and-political-magazines/twenty-fourth-amendment
"Twenty-fourth Amendment." Constitutional Amendments: From Freedom of Speech to Flag Burning. . Retrieved May 24, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/law/legal-and-political-magazines/twenty-fourth-amendment
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