Memories of the Poll Tax Fight
By Virginia Foster Durr with William Honey
Vol. 14, No. 1, 1992, pp. 14-15
When I got to Washington in 1933 I began working with the Women’s Division of the Democratic Party. One of the things that we worked for was to get rid of the poll tax. Women gained the right to vote in 1917, but the poll tax and control of the election process by white men almost completely excluded women and blacks and poor whites in the South from voting.
In Virginia where I lived at the time I believe that less than thirteen percent of the eligible voting population was registered to vote. In Alabama it may have been slightly less.
When I tried to register in Virginia, I found that the registrar lived way up on the sidle of a mountain and did not have a telephone. When I finally found him, he said he could not find the poll book, and that he did not have a pen, and then he did not have any ink. He told me to come back some other time, but I knew I wouldn’t find him again, so we mixed ink from water and soot off the stove. Then when I went to vote, the polling officials said my poll tax receil)t was not any good because I had not paid interest on the back tax.
James Farley was chairman of the Democratic Party then, and he came and talked to the Women’s Division and said we had to drop the whole voting rights issue because the Southern Congressmen were very upset. So we had to drop it, at least through the Democratic Party.
Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune, a distinguished black woman from Florida, joined our group. Florida had rescinded the poll tax with the help of great liberal congressmen like Claude Pepper and LeRoy Collins.
She said we were not going to get anywhere in our efforts working alone as a group of white women and suggested we join with black groups who had been fighting the poll tax for years. Sowe got in touch with the NAACP and a very fine group of black men like Charley Houston, Dean of Howard Law School, and Judge William Hastie, and Thurgood Marshall, later Supreme Court justice.
Then we learned that the Southern Conference for Human Welfare had an active committee fighting the poll tax. So we joined with the Southern Conference to fight the poll tax.
That committee had some outstanding leaders. Claude Pepper was head of the committee, so was Estes Kefauver of Tennessee and Maurie Maverick of Texas. The committee was very unusual in that its membership included a tremendously broad group of both black and white people.
John L. Lewis was forming the CIO, and when he found that his union people in the South could not vote, he gave our committee lots of money, and later other unions took up the cause.
Mrs. Roosevelt, Mrs. Bethune, and I became active members of the committee. It was an uphill struggle in those days because the WPA and NYA and all the alphabetical agencies established during the New Deal were paying the same wages to black and white workers in the South. The Southern senators and congressmen were furious about this.
I remember one summer day in 1939 I was sitting on the porch of the White House with several women from the committee, and we were trying to figure out who to ask to introduce the bill into Congress outlawing the poll tax. Mrs. Roosevelt said Franklin was in his study, and she would go ask him who we should ask.
She returned in about fifteen minutes, and I could see she was upset. Her face was flushed and her hands were shaking. “Franklin says we can’t ask anybody right now
because he is getting ready for a war and he needs the Support of the Southern congressmen.”
Well, that was the end of that, but later we did get a bill through Congress that allowed servicemen during the Second World War to vote without paying the poll tax.
I started fighting the poll tax in 1933, but it wasn’t until thirty-two years later that Lyndon Johnson got the Voting Rights Act through Congress. I used to worry Lyndon about the poll tax all the time. He would put his arm around my shoulder and say, “Now Virginia when I get the votes, then I’ll do it, but I haven’t got the votes now.” Finally he got the votes, and he did what he promised to do all along.
That wasn’t the end of it of course.
Even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, white voting registrars in the South still refused to enroll black voters. People like my friend Zecozy Williams who lived in Selma told me that black people sometimes waited days to try to register. She was instrumental in getting the federal voting registrars to come to Alabama. It was not until then that black people could register in numbers sufficient to make a difference.
Virginia Foster Durr, a frequent contributor to Southern Changes, took the third route for young Southern white women of her generation said Studs Terkel, not to “act the Southern Belle,” not to go crazy, but to rebel to “step outside the magic circle, abandon privilege, and challenge this way of life.” William Honey, lawyer, teacher and writer, lives in Montgomery, Alabama.