Voting Rights in the Early 1960s: “Registering Who They Wanted To”

Today’s blog was written by Stacey Chandler, Textual Reference Archivist at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

Part II: Literacy Tests, Poll Taxes, and other 1971(a) Barriers to the Black Vote

In 1962, Deputy Attorney General Burke Marshall reported that “racial denials of the right to vote” existed in eight states, with only fourteen percent of eligible black citizens registered to vote in Alabama, and just five percent in Mississippi. There were pockets with even lower numbers: eleven Southern counties with majority-black populations but no registered black voters; and a Louisiana county that hadn’t registered a single black resident since 1900. Aaron E. Henry, Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Mississippi, later explained: “it was largely the will of the white power structure of the various communities that dictated whether or not blacks were able to participate” in elections.


Southern black communities and Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyers worked together to dismantle this power structure, building court cases against states and counties that allowed the two main types of violations: rule-based discrimination (including unfair requirements for registration) and threat-based violations (such as violence against people who tried to register). As communities pushed back against both kinds of discrimination, thousands of people across the country noticed.

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In this post, we’ll focus on the rule-based violations, illegal under Section 1971(a) of voting rights law. These cases could be tough to prosecute in the early 1960s; because states had the right to make their own voting rules, it wasn’t technically illegal to require tests, taxes, or identification for registration. But what was illegal – and what the DOJ had to prove was happening – was using those rules to keep certain people from voting. Some of the DOJ’s most glaring examples came from the infamous literacy tests, required for registration in several Southern states.


In theory, the tests were created to make sure voters could read and write. But in practice, Aaron Henry noted, registrars used them as “a way of registering who they wanted to, and not registering who they didn’t want to.” Civil rights leader and future Congressman John Lewis described how, in trying to prove discrimination, he and many other activists were arrested while trying to “get people on the steps of the courthouse to get up the steps, inside the door, to get a copy of the so-called literacy test.” Protected by federal voting rights laws, DOJ lawyers were able to search the courthouse records; they took thousands of literacy tests into court to prove black applicants were given harder questions, graded more strictly, and denied help more often than their white neighbors.

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In these examples, a white applicant was told to interpret Section 14 of the Mississippi Constitution: “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property except by due process of law.” Writing “the law has supreme jurisdiction of all its citizens,” the applicant passed and registered. The same registrar gave a black applicant Section 16: “Ex post facto laws, or laws impairing the obligation of contracts, shall not be passed.” The applicant wrote a thorough response, but was failed and barred from registering.

In addition to literacy tests, “poll tax” payments were required for registration in a handful of states. While low-income citizens of all races found themselves unable to afford their right to vote in these states, even black Southerners who could pay the tax described resistance and abuse from registrars.


Complicated voter identification laws presented challenges, too. The DOJ reported that these rules, which local officials claimed were meant to prevent fraud, were really used to disqualify minority applicants. In court, witnesses described the Louisiana system: registrars could demand identification from anyone they didn’t personally know, requiring the applicant to produce two registered voters to vouch for his or her identity.


In areas like East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, which hadn’t registered a single black voter since 1922, black applicants often couldn’t find even one person to vouch for them – and if they did, that person could only identify two people per year. When DOJ lawyers challenged the East Carroll system, the registrar explained that he required two vouchers for every black applicant “because Negroes are not reliable.” The judge ruled for the DOJ in this case, ordering the parish to accept reasonable proof of identification (including hunting and driver’s licenses, library cards, or utility bills) from people of all races.


Though the DOJ and voting rights advocates enjoyed groundbreaking court victories when battling 1971(a) violations, many Americans argued that government lawyers didn’t have the power to solve every voting rights problem. Even as it became harder for states and counties to discriminate with rules, minority communities still faced violence and threats while working to register more voters. In follow-up posts, we’ll look at these 1971(b) violations and and the people who fought to end what civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph called the “reign of terror.”


(Future posts in this series will explore cases of voter discrimination in more depth, highlighting events and documents from the early 1960s voting rights movement.)

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