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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Revolutionary Movements Then and Now: Black Power and Black Lives Matter

In 1966, Black Power emerged as a rallying call for African Americans to shift their focus from freedom now to the embrace of black cultural, political, and economic power. In a speech during the March against Fear in Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael made public the phase Black Power and moved the civil rights movement towards a black nationalist agenda. Four months later, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale canvassed their neighborhood inquiring about issues and concerns of black residents. Their efforts created the Ten-Point Platform that became the foundation for the establishment of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Fifty years later, in 2016, Black Lives Matter, co-founded by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, has become a movement advocating for dignity, justice, and respect in the wake of social and judicial tragedies occurring in America today.

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Elaine Brown: Leader and Activist

Today’s post was written by Daniella Furman, Archivist in the Textual Processing Branch at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

It is important to look back and examine the similarities and differences between the Black Power Movement of the past and the Black Lives Matter Movement of today, to see the important lessons learned and the goals that are still yet ahead of us in the quest for equality and justice. One of the most prominent organizations during the Black Power era was the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. There were only a few figures who stood out or were as remembered from this movement as Elaine Brown. We recently came across a treasure trove of photographs in the RG 65 FBI Case File 157-3430 in the series Classification 157 (Civil Unrest) Case Files, 1957 – 1978 (NAID 1513564) that depict Elaine Brown during some of the highlights of her involvement in the Black Power Movement. To obtain a copy of this file, please contact our FOIA office. Continue reading

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An Act to Establish the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Today’s post is by Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

Throughout this month until November 9th the National Archives will display the act from 2003 that established the National Museum for African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), opening this weekend on September 24th.

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Black Power Politics: The Congressional Black Caucus

Today’s blog was written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Supervisory Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

This year is the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Black Power movement in America. During the 1960s and 1970s, African Americans experienced an increase in the embrace of racial pride, self-determination, and started to create cultural institutions relating to their communities. The momentum of the Black Power movement also brought about a stronger desire for political power. Through black political organizing, African American politicians were able to refocus their attention towards an agenda that would better serve and improve black communities in America and throughout the world. Continue reading

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Bayard Rustin: The Inmate that the Prison Could Not Handle

Today’s post was written by Shaina Destine, a student intern in Textual Processing at the National Archives in College Park.
Bayard Rustin was the perpetual hero that history forgot.  I learned of Bayard Rustin in regards to his Civil Rights and Gay Rights work in my early 20s.  I heard about him being a Quaker and a Communist.  I even heard that he spent time in prison, however, his prison life is always glossed over.  I never knew the details.  In the last few weeks, I’ve spent time scanning his prison records from 1944 to 1946 (located in the RG 129 Notorious Offenders Files NAID 580698)when he was imprisoned for violating the Selective Service Act.

Intake mugshot of Bayard Rustin at the Lewisburg Penitentiary, August 3, 1945

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Jesse Owens, American Hero

Re-post in Celebration of the Start of the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Today’s post was written by Ms. Netisha Currie, Archives Specialist at the National Archives in College Park

photo with Jesse Owens starting an Olympic race

Olympian Jesse Owens, NAID 595375

The new biographical movie about Jesse Owens, Race, will be released in theaters this Friday, February 19th. The title has a double meaning – alluding to Owens’ historic record breaking feats he performed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics as well as his identity as an African American, which presented hurdles as a citizen of the United States. Continue reading

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Photographed: Summertime in 1970s Chicago

Today’s blog was written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Supervisory Archivist in Textual Processing at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

During the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sponsored the Documerica program that photographed subjects of environmental concern and everyday life in America. The series DOCUMERICA: The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972 – 1977 (National Archives Identifier 542493) contains photographs by several well-known photographers contracted by the EPA. Some of the subjects photographed in this series include National Parks, the Great Lakes, mountains, urban areas, and air and water pollution. This series consists of 35mm color slides and black and white negatives and prints. Also, within this series are images depicting black life in Chicago during the summers of the 1970s. These images were taken by photographer John H. White. Continue reading

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Unbought and Unbossed: Shirley Chisholm and the 1972 Presidential Run

Today’s post was written by Tiffany Walker, Archivist in the Textual Processing Branch at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic Presidential nomination, thus becoming the first woman in United States history to lead the ticket of a major political party. However, Clinton was not the first woman to run for President of the United States.


This item is a photograph of President William J. Clinton greeting Shirley Chisholm, Ambassador-Designate to Jamaica, in the Oval Office of the White House. The image was photographed by Robert McNeely. [NAID 2842929]

Shirley Chisholm is best known for becoming the first major-party black candidate for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1972. Elected to Congress in 1968, Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Congress. She represented New York’s 12th Congressional District from 1968 to 1983.

A0294-10A 600dpi scan from Negative

This photograph depicts President Gerald R. Ford seated at the Cabinet Room table signing a proclamation on Women’s Equality Day 1974. Standing behind him are Representatives Yvonne Brathwait Burke (D-California), Barbara Jordan (D-Texas), Elizabeth Holtzman (D-New York), Marjorie S. Holt (R-Maryland), Leonor K. Sullivan (D-Missouri), Cardiss Collins (D -Illinois), Corinne C. Boggs (D-Louisiana), Margaret M. Heckler (R-Massachusetts), Bella S. Abzug (D-New York), and Shirley Chisholm (D-New York). [NAID 12082600]

Chisholm’s campaign slogan, “unbought and unbossed,” recalled her rise from the daughter of working class immigrant parents to her success as a voice for the people in her capacity as Congresswoman. Despite the drive and will to succeed, Chisolm’s campaign only managed to spend $300,000 in funding.

From the start, Chisholm faced struggles and opposition during her 1972 presidential campaign. She was ignored by much of the Democratic establishment, struggled with being seen as a symbol, as opposed to a serious political candidate, and faced opposition from all sides including from prominent black male colleagues. Chisholm expressed her frustrations with this aspect of her campaign a decade later stating, “When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men.”

President Nixon meets with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Cabinet Room (NAID 7822054)

President Nixon meets with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Cabinet Room (NAID 7822054)

Still, Chisolm persisted and later remarked in her book The Good Fight, “I ran for the presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo… The next time a woman runs, or a black, a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is ‘not ready’ to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start.”

After her political career had come to an end in 1983, Chisolm taught politics and sociology at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Her efforts inspired many to go on to pursue political careers against all odds and she continues to inspire today.



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“Turn this Town Out”: Stokely Carmichael, Black Power, and the March against Fear

Today’s blog was written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Supervisory Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

The March against Fear that took place in June 1966, is considered the last great march against racism of the 1960s Civil Rights era in the South. Participants of this march included the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). After activist James Meredith was shot in the leg on day two, these organizations continued where he had to leave off. During this march from Memphis, TN to Jackson, MS, the evolving ideologies of these organizations clashed, thus marking a shift from an era of mostly passive/nonviolent action to more active and direct protest. Additional details on the Meredith March are discussed by Jamie White, former National Declassification Center (NDC) employee, in his February 5, 2014 blog, “James Meredith and his March against Fear.”

RG 65 Classification 44 (Civil Unrest) Headquarters Case Files, (National Archives Identifier 2329984) contains correspondence, memorandums, photographs, newspaper clippings, reports, transcripts, and telegrams relating to violations of civil rights laws. Case file #44-33352, Mississippi (1966) Meredith March, Stokely Carmichael consists of investigative documentation regarding the March against Fear. Several of the reports and statements in this case file refers to the actions that occurred on June 16, 1966 in Greenwood, Mississippi.

During the march, Stokely Carmichael, who was the current Chairman of SNCC, used his rhetoric and passion to alter the direction of the Civil Rights movements towards a black power agenda. Carmichael, a 24-year old, recent graduate from Howard University became active with SNCC in 1961. He participated in voter registration in the South and spent time at Parchman State Prison Farm in Mississippi for attempting to integrate passenger trains. In 1965, Carmichael assisted black Alabamians with their voter registration efforts and was exposed to the techniques and ideologies of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO). The LCFO used the black panther as its symbol, members openly carried guns, and they believed in “black power for black people.” The LCFO, along with SNCC ran its candidates against the all-white democrat party members in Alabama elections.

FBI Case File 44-33352_Page_23

On June 16, 1966, marchers began to set-up camp on the grounds of the Stone Street Elementary School in Greenwood, Mississippi. There was some confusion as to whether or not the marchers had permission to set up tents on the public school’s grounds. Local white officials confronted the marchers and told them they were not allowed on the school’s property. Carmichael, Robert Smith, and Bruce Bains continued to pitch tents and threaten to have marchers “turn this town out” if arrested. The three men were arrested and charged with trespassing.

Carmichael was released from jail several hours later. He immediately went to address the 1,500 marchers at a nearby rally. Fellow SNCC member Willie Ricks, who had been prepping marchers all day, encouraged Carmichael to use the slogan “Black Power” during the speech. Ricks and Carmichael had become familiar with the phrase black power by watching its use with the LCFO, and defined it as a call for black political and economic power. And on the night of June 16, 1966, Carmichael proclaimed to the crowd, “We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nothin. What we got to start saying now is Black Power! We want Black Power.”

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of when Carmichael and other marchers shifted the Civil Rights agenda from freedom now to Black Power. Many African Americans began to embraced the notions of black self-empowerment, political power, and economic independence. At the conclusion of this march, SCLC began protesting against economic inequality and the Vietnam War, SNCC’s new leadership focused on black power and Pan-Africanism, and CORE moved towards economic empowerment and black power.


[SAVE-THE-DATE. October 2016, The Say It Loud! Employee Affinity Group along with the National Archives Foundation will be hosting a multi-generational panel discussion on Black Power titled “Revolutionary Movements: Then and Now –  Black Power and Black Lives Matter” at the National Archives at Washington, D. C. Stay tuned for more details.]

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