From the Archives: Fighting the Poll Tax

September 04, 2012

In August 1940, AAUW Atlanta (GA) Branch member Margot Gayle visited Washington, D.C. It was not your typical summer tourist trip. Gayle was determined to meet with members of Congress. Her goal? To provide them with The Statement of 100 Southern Women, a document signed by women from eight Southern states that called for the abolishment of the poll tax requirement for voting. Many of the signers were AAUW members. And not coincidentally, Gayle arrived in D.C. on the 20th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

Gayle recognized that the poll tax was not merely a local or Southern issue but one that had “effects far beyond the borders of the eight Southern states which retain it tied to the vote.” She accepted that the tax was often viewed as a “sectional problem dealing with local election laws” but was adamant that it actually “denies to the country a truly representative form of government.”

While in Washington, Gayle also spoke with Francis Valiant Speek of the AAUW Committee on Economic and Legal Status of Women. Gayle inquired whether the AAUW national office was studying the poll tax, which disproportionately affected women. Speek replied that AAUW had already begun surveying Southern branches and had thrown its support behind federal legislation that would outlaw the tax. The two AAUW forces, one local and one national, joined together.

Two years later, AAUW sponsored The Poll Tax, a report written by lawyer Eleanor Bontecou that studied the tax and its effects on voter turnout in the eight Southern states. Bontecou was dedicated to the cause — she was working with the Southern Conference for Human Welfare to study the tax and with well-known political scientist Ralph Johnson Bunche on issues relating to Southern suffrage. In fact, Bontecou used the proceeds from her previous earnings to fund the research and writing of The Poll Tax for AAUW. Bontecou’s insightful study outlined the history of the relationship between voting rights and property, the racist motives for the poll tax, and the momentous effect that the practice had on voter turnout.

The report was published right before Senate hearings on the Geyer-Pepper Bill, the federal anti-poll tax legislation that was filibustered by Southern states and never passed. Although many states subsequently removed the poll tax requirement without federal mandate, it wasn’t until the ratification of the 24th Amendment in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the poll tax was officially prohibited.

Today, Americans don’t have to open their wallets to vote — at least not to get out cash — but many still encounter barriers like voter-identification requirements. As the 2012 elections draw closer, AAUW can say with pride that we are continuing our long-standing tradition of protecting enfranchisement by opposing any form of voter suppression. Read more about voter-ID laws in the Fall issue of Outlook magazine, and read the full 1942 poll tax report for yourself at the AAUW Online Museum.

This post was written by AAUW Archivist and Records Manager Suzanne Gould.

By:   |   September 04, 2012

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