How poll taxes have historically hurt black Americans
Addressing the 103rd NAACP Convention in Houston, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder likened new voter ID laws to poll taxes. Referring specifically to Texas voter ID laws, Holder said that “many of those without IDs would have to travel great distances to get them — and some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them.”
Poll taxes to disenfranchise black voters were not always so indirect. From roughly 1890 to 1908, Southern states actively adopted poll taxes to disenfranchise black Americans. During Reconstruction, black Southerners, the majority of whom had been enslaved, voted heavily, often sweeping those antebellum politicians out of office and widely electing black leadership, especially on the state level.
Because black Americans comprised as much as 40 percent of the population or more in many Southern states, their votes were very significant, and that power infuriated white Southern leaders, especially those who had fought hard to maintain slavery. And, back then, they were not at all shy about voicing their frustrations and what they intended to do to eradicate them.
Across the South, there was a great push to rewrite state constitutions where such policies of black voter disenfranchisement could be institutionalized. As a result, state conventions popped up all over the South. In these sessions, which were being recorded, these men did not hold their tongues regarding their intentions. There was no covert plan.
At a constitutional convention in South Carolina in 1895, the former governor and then U.S. Senator Benjamin R. Tillman, according to Frederic D. Ogden’s 1958 book The Poll Tax in the South published by the University of Alabama Press, claimed that black voters had been largely responsible for the reconstruction government and he, along with the men gathered there, was determined to prevent this from occurring again.
“. . . this must be our justification, our vindication, and our excuse to the world that we are met in convention openly, boldly, without any pretence [sic] of secrecy, to announce that it is our purpose, as far as we many, without coming in conflict with the United States Constitution, to put such safeguards around this ballot in the future, to so restrict the suffrage and circumscribe it, that this infamy can never come about again,” he spoke.
The president of Louisiana’s 1898 state constitutional convention, Ernest B. Krusttschnitt, was even more direct. “We have not drafted the exact Constitution that we should like to have drafted; otherwise we should have inscribed in it, if I know the popular sentiment of this State, universal white manhood suffrage, and the exclusion from the suffrage of every man with a trace of African blood in his veins,” he proclaimed.