Race and Suffrage in the South Since 1940

Staff

Vol.22, No.1, Spring 2000 pp. 8-9

In the June-July 1948 issue of New South, the Southern Regional Council published an assessment of the progress made toward unencumbered access to the ballot for Black Americans in the 1940s. Below is an edited version of the Council's perspective.

In any future history of suffrage in the South, the decade of the 1940s will probably be known as the time of an awakening among Negroes and of a change of attitude by many whites toward Negro participation in this phase of government. Certainly during the last eight years the Negro has advanced in the exercise of the right of franchise at a much faster rate than at any other time in the past half century.

The new trend is noticeable to any investigator who makes a tour of the South. He finds considerable change in about seven of these states and a lesser change in the remaining ones. He feels highly encouraged as he passes southward through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; but his enthusiasm wanes when he strikes Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Continuing the tour, his spirit revives as he proceeds through Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. Throughout the section, the investigator notes a decline in the barriers to voting in the urban industrial areas, while he observes but little change in the rural farm areas.

Preceding the publication of this pamphlet is a report of investigations made by Ralph Bunche and Gunnar Myrdal in 1940. The gradual weakening of the poll tax and the abolition of the white primary, which Myrdal forecast, have now been wholly or partly realized. It is the


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purpose of the present writer, therefore, to reveal the lines and extent of progress since Bunche and Myrdal made their studies.

One method of showing the causes for the unprecedented gains of Negroes in the Southern United States is to analyze the status of the poll tax, the system of registration, and the white primary as each has operated since 1940.

The use of the poll tax has dwindled, though its severity varies considerably from state to state. Of the eleven Southern states which once required the fee, four have abolished it. These are North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana. South Carolina and Arkansas retain the levy, but in each instance the amount is only one dollar, it is noncumulative, and it is payable only one or two months before the election. Texas and Tennessee exact a larger sum of money than South Carolina and Arkansas, but the tax here is likewise non-cumulative. Oklahoma has never required a poll tax. Only Mississippi, Virginia, and Alabama remain, then, where this celebrated instrument constitutes a significant barrier either by the amount of money to be paid, by the time and method of payment, or by its cumulative features.

The poll tax is merely one of the series of schemes which were contrived a half century ago to reduce the size of the electorate and to keep it under machine control. Greater than the poll tax as a barrier to voting, and far greater as an instrument for race distinction, is the registration requirement. This requirement entails hardships for many Negroes for the reason that every single registrar is a law unto himself. With very little centralized state control of registrations and elections, these officials are left to do as they please.

Among the states of the Solid south, a change toward greater equality in most phases of the electoral process has come first in the states of Virginia and North Carolina. The reins are tightened on Negro registration in South Carolina, but here again not so tight as a decade ago. In Florida, likewise, there is a letting down of the bars except in most of the counties in the northern part of the State. In Georgia, a similar change has come, particularly in the cities.

The old time devices hang on most tenaciously in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The state of Texas is one of the most advanced in the entire South in the attitude of officials toward registration of Negroes. And a similar condition is developing in Arkansas. In Oklahoma race distinction in registration disappeared some time ago, while a similar condition exists for Tennessee, except for two or three river bottom counties.

To generalize for the whole region, it would be difficult to point to more than a handful of Southern cities with a population of 25,000 or more in which there is vigorous opposition to Negroes becoming registered voters. It is in the rural south where 65 percent of the Negroes reside, that the greatest difficulty in meeting voting requirements is encountered.

To make certain of the disfranchisement of the Negroes, the state Democratic organizations of the South forty years ago adopted the "white primary," whereby only white Democrats could vote in this, the only meaningful election of the region. In view of the fact that there were only a handful of Black Republicans left following the disfranchisement of around 1900, this racial requirement of the Democrats inflicted the most fatal blow which the Negro had yet received.

The abolition of this electoral device [in 1944] struck at the root of most of the former difficulties of Negroes in their efforts to attain citizenship status. Among the factors which led to a 26 percent increase in the number of qualified Negro voters, none exerted a more powerful influence than the elimination of the white primary.

It is in order at this point to evaluate this new development and suggest procedures for the future. Because of the poverty and limited education of hundreds of thousands of white Southerners, the forces of reaction in the South have always been powerful. This group stands ready to fight any movement which seems directed to the advancement of the Negro. Regardless of the reaction and demagoguery, it seems highly improbable that the progress made by the Negroes as voters during the 1940 decade will wane.

For some time now electoral reform organizations and advocates of a free ballot generally have attempted to abolish the poll tax. In this effort they have enjoyed considerable success. But now it would be well for them to consider leveling their guns at the discriminatory registration practices in a half dozen Southern states. Since it is registration which is now the greatest deterrent to voting by Negroes, and since the law of all the Southern states, as well as that of the Federal Government, provides for remedies for the numerous instances in which these officials willfully debar many potential voters, the parties aggrieved should make a much wider use of the courts than they have in the past. These agencies wiped out the white primary; they have diminished the rigours of registration in some places; and above all else, they have been largely responsible for creating the favorable public opinion noted throughout this pamphlet.