"24th Amendment. Right to Vote. [Proposed by Congress September 14, 1962; ratified January 23, 1964.]
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
Perhaps no issue involved in the domestic affairs of the United States has been the cause of so much strife and shows so little hope of final resolution as the racial issue. Throughout this nation's history, controversy resulting from racial prejudice and bigotry has put a conspicuously ugly blight on hopes for American unity. Legislation cannot alter people's minds, but fortunately anti-discriminatory laws have had enough impact on society to provide for changes in social values which showed disfavor to minorities.
Undoubtedly, the minority group which has suffered the most deeply and ignominiously in America is the Negro. The introduction of slaves to North America brought to the Negro a social niche roughly corresponding to a highly domesticated animal. People were brought up with this attitude; consequently, only a small sliver of society was enlightened sufficiently to see the disgrace in it. When the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in 1776, its author felt a pang of shame. Thomas Jefferson had fought to put a section in it which would condemn the King of England for allowing the practice of slavery, a phrase which would compel its abolition in the new land. But the Founding Fathers had come to realize that no such statement would be acceptable to the American people, and were forced to omit it. The Declaration of Independence, condoning slavery, was received with overwhelming appeal. The framers of the Constitution, twelve years later, gave in slightly in passing the Three-Fifths Compromise. Although it did not give Negroes any rights as citizens, it did provide that three fifths of them be counted in a state's population in apportioning representatives to Congress, which at least acknowledged that they were people (or 60% people, anyway).
For some eighty years, the status of the Negro in society remained basically unchanged. But when change came in 1860, it was swift indeed.
Since 1788, the United States had become a large nation, relatively. It had become, in essence, the union of two great sections divided economically and politically. The North was progressive and dynamic. Industry had poured wealth into its economy. For such reasons, slavery had little use in the North (although there was a small amount of it). The South, on the other hand, consisted of plantation after plantation, row upon row of cotton. Slavery was the center of southern economy. Compared to the North, the South was poor; but it would have been practically nothing at all without slavery.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President. He loved the United States, but he was not about to sacrifice his principles on human rights if he could do otherwise; and his principles were of equal rights regardless of race, creed, or color. In short, he was an avowed abolitionist of slavery; and thus reflected the views of a small, yet growing portion of northern society.
Response to his election in the South was violent. His election, in combination with economic factors, brought on the secession of the southern states and the creation of the Confederate States of America.
The rest is all too well known. The attempt on the part of the North to reclaim its rebellious counterpart touched off the greatest tragedy in American history, the War Between the States.
The gory details omitted, the so-called Civil War brought such a thorough destruction of the people, the economy, and the entire society of the South that reconstruction seemed impossible.
But one great ray of hope emerged. In 1863 came President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The Negro had finally gained freedom. Soon after the war, Congress produced the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery (1865); the Fourteenth Amendment, prohibiting denial of citizenship on the basis of race, creed, or color (1868); and, finally, the Fifteenth Amendment, prohibiting the denial of the right to vote on the basis of race, creed, or color (1870).
It is indeed unfortunate that the story does not end here. But the southern states were not ready for such powerfully humanitarian ideas. They reasoned that if the Negroes could still be prevented, in some sneaky, indirect way, from voting, they would still have no voice in the affairs of their states or nation.
One of the primary methods used in the late 1800's was the literacy test. The literacy test, first used in 1855 for immigrants, was soon adopted by the southern states and applied in a discriminatory manner against Negroes. Uneducated whites were protected from such tests by clauses included in the state constitutions of the southern states which provided that anyone who had voted before the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment was entitled to continue voting without literacy tests or payment of poll tax, and so were all his male descendants. Such clauses were called "grandfather clauses". They were used extensively until 1910, when the "grandfather clause" was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
However, another method had come into use. In 1889, the state of Florida adopted a provision in its state constitution requiring all persons to pay a poll tax before voting. By 1902, all eleven southern states had a poll tax on the books. This discriminated mainly against Negroes, who were usually denied lucrative jobs to start with, and thus could not afford such a tax. Poor whites were, once again, protected by the grandfather clause at least until 1910.
The withdrawal of the grandfather clause caused some states to decide that the poll tax was more trouble than it was worth. One by one, southern states began to withdraw poll tax requirements. The first state to do so was North Carolina, in 1920. Louisiana followed, in 1934; Florida, in 1937; Georgia, in 1945; South Carolina, in 1950; Tennessee, in 1951; and Arkansas, in 1964.
It was in the early 1960's that this all came to a climax.
Of the roughly 5700 potential amendments which had been through Congressional discussion, the hottest amendment topic in 1962 was a proposal to do away with poll tax requirements once and for all. The 1950's had been an era of civil rights legislation; the 23rd Amendment enfranchising the District of Columbia's predominantly black population had recently passed; and the passage of such a poll tax amendment seemed likely. The amendment was proposed in Congress and enjoyed great support. Ironically enough, its original backer in the Senate was from Florida Spessard Holland. Despite an extensive filibuster, the amendment was officially proposed by Congress on September 14, 1962. The amendment completed ratification 496 days later, after South Dakota became the 38th state to ratify the amendment, bringing the proportion of states to three fourths, and the General Services Administration certified the ratification. The date was January 23, 1964. Only one state had refused to ratify, and that was Mississippi.
The southern states did not seem too unhappy with the move. Georgia's Lieutenant Governor Peter Zack Geer summed up their feelings by mentioning, "All this does is make the U.S. Constitution conform to Georgia's constitution." Geer, an avid supporter of Amendment 24, was acknowledging that society in his state was still based on segregation. Newsweek magazine made the comment that " . . . as a weapon to keep Negroes from voting, the tax has long been supplanted by 'literacy tests', closed registration lists, or downright intimidation. . . ."
The fact that the amendment prohibited the collection of poll tax only in Federal elections was significant, in that some states retained the tax for state and local elections. This meant that these states had to provide for "dual elections". Such elections, which took place in Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia (Arkansas repealed its state and local poll tax requirement soon after the passage of the amendment) were characterized by the following complexities:
1) three registration lists: one for voters in Federal elections, one for voters in state elections, and one for voters in both Federal and state elections
2) two or three separate ballots
3) voting machine adjustments
4) separate counts for poll-tax-paying and non-poll-tax-paying citizens
Officials called this action an "attack on unemployment".
Some states went to extremes to combat the new legislation. The Virginia State General Assembly met shortly after the ratification of Amendment XXIV and adopted the policy that a voter not wishing to pay poll tax would be required to file a "certificate of residency". However, such voters would not be given a receipt of any sort, and thus could not prove that they had filed certificates! The legislature claimed that the measure was set up in order to prevent persons who came from Washington, D.C., to work in Virginia government from voting in Virginia elections. "The issue," said Virginia's governor, Albertis S. Harris, "is, in fact, a very narrow one to make sure that the electorate of Virginia is made up only of bona-fide residents of this State; to make certain that the purity of our elections be preserved." Whether the governor's claim is true is certainly open to speculation.
It was in 1966 that the inefficient dual poll tax system came to an end. In Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, the Supreme Court made a ruling on the basis of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment which prohibited poll tax as a requirement in any election, Federal or otherwise. Part of the statement read:
Once the franchise has been granted to the electorate, lines may not be drawn which are inconsistent with the Equal Protection Clause . . . Voter qualifications have no relation to wealth nor to paying or not paying this or any other tax. Wealth, like race, creed, or color, is not germane to one's ability to participate intelligently in the electoral process.