24th Amendment: commentary

Although the Civil Rights Movement made tremendous progress in combating segregation and other forms of discrimination against Blacks, and changing public opinion, prejudiced “Jim Crow” whites didn’t want to lose their hold on power. Most other forms of preventing Blacks from voting had been declared unconstitutional, so several Southern states found a new way to do it: the poll tax.

Poll taxes are actually an old practice. They are not necessarily a weapon of injustice. In Europe, they have been used to raise money for the local government. With poll taxes, each voter must pay a certain amount of money before they’re allowed to vote. If they didn’t pay the tax, they couldn’t vote.

In the Southern states that passed these laws, each voter was charged the same amount of poll tax. Well-to-do and rich citizens could afford to pay the tax, but blacks, many of whom were poor, couldn’t. Suppose you were a black woman working as a domestic servant. You brought home enough money each week to buy groceries for your family, with not very much left over for other necessities. Now suppose that a Presidential election was coming up, and you wanted to vote. But you were faced between choosing whether to spend money on the poll tax or spending the money on food for your family, a week’s worth of groceries. If you bought the food, you had to do without voting. If you paid the poll tax, your family would go hungry. Of course, you’d choose to buy food. So you didn’t vote.

Even worse, some poll taxes were cumulative, so if a citizen didn’t vote one year, but tried to vote in the next election, s/he would be charged the accumulated poll tax from that previous election (even though s/he hadn’t voted) along with the tax for this one. This made it impossible for many blacks to vote.

Congress had been trying to abolish (get rid of) the poll tax since 1939, but didn’t succeed until the Civil Rights Era. Although only five states still had a poll tax by this time, Congress argued that a Constitutional amendment was needed to eliminate it altogether. The 24th Amendment was ratified in 1964, during the Johnson Administration.