What Were Poll Taxes & Literacy Tests For?

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After the Civil War, millions of newly freed American blacks had to be integrated into a new Southern reality. These people were, in general, poorly educated and poorly prepared because of generations of slavery. Southern lawmakers took advantage of these circumstances and passed laws making it impossible for newly freed slaves to completely integrate into society. One set of these laws restricted blacks' right to vote.

Constitutional Amendments

  • In post-Civil War America, blacks were ostensibly denied the right to vote in the South and in 16 Northern states. The 14th Amendment, guaranteeing American blacks basic citizenship rights, was passed in 1868. In 1869, the 15th Amendment was passed to guarantee voting rights; its main clause stated, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Although this amendment was designed to protect the new voting rights of Southern blacks, it did not go far enough.

The Literacy Test

  • Southern legislatures identified a number of ways the intent of the 15th Amendment could be legally circumvented. One was the literacy test prior to voting. Originally used in antebellum New England to ensure voters had at least a basic understanding of voting issues, the literacy test quickly transformed into a means by which immigrants could be denied voting rights. Though literacy tests were soon eradicated in the North, the postwar South saw them as a new tool in the war against the black vote. In 1890, Mississippi started using literacy tests to exclude blacks, few of whom were even minimally literate, at the voting polls. Several other Southern states followed suit.

Poll Taxes

  • Poll taxes were first used in colonial times, and were a per-person fixed-rate tax annual tax; those who could not pay their poll taxes were not allowed to vote. Before the Civil War, poll taxes were levied on male citizens. Southern slave owners had to pay poll tax for themselves and for each slave owned. After the Civil War, poll taxes were levied on all male citizens, and these taxes were often too high for poor blacks to afford. They became an instrument of selective disenfranchisement when a grandfather rule was also implemented. The grandfather rule allowed any male citizen to vote, regardless of poll tax or literacy test results, if his grandfather had also voted. Because most black citizens were the grandchildren of slaves, these rules in combination had the effect of disenfranchising almost every black male American in the South.

Other Disenfranchisement Efforts

  • Besides the above techniques, several other methods for disenfranchising blacks were used. "White primaries" rules allowed state political parties to disallow blacks from participating in primaries; since most Southern states were completely controlled by the Democratic party, blacks were effectively locked out of meaningful votes. Violence, either through intimidation at the polls or lynchings of blacks and their white supporters, was used to control blacks, including blacks who dared show up at the polls. Other creative techniques, including gerrymandering to prevent black-majority districts and multiple ballots, involving voting for the same candidate at several sites before a vote counted, effectively locked blacks out of voting and cemented Democratic governance in the South.

The End of Disenfranchisement

  • It took another federal legislative movement to end black disenfranchisement. The 24th Amendment, passed in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it illegal to use poll taxes, literacy tests or most of the other techniques used in the South to prevent black citizens from voting.

References

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