Recalling an era when the color of your skin meant you paid to vote
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In January 1955 in Hardin County, Texas, Leo Carr had to pay $1.50 to vote. That receipt for Carr's "poll tax" now resides in the collections of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. In today's dollars, Carr paid roughly $13.
"It's a day's wages," explains William Pretzer. He is the museum's senior history curator. "You're asking someone to pay a day's wages in order to be able to vote."
Pretzer says the museum accepted the donation of the receipt from Carr's family in 2012 as a vivid example of the way that voting rights were denied to African Americans. Poll taxes were, quite simply, a tax to pay to vote. They were enacted from the late 19th to the very early 20th century. They remained in effect until the 1960s.
March was the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision to strike down poll taxes. In November, voters will head to the polls for the 2016 presidential election. Some people have suggested that voting rights are once again under siege.
"After the 1870s, particularly in the southern states, there was an effort to restrict any kind of political power for African Americans," Pretzer says. In the immediate post-Civil-War era, when voting rights were accorded to African Americans in the south, thousands registered, voted and ran for office. "There was great concern on the part of the white power structure that this was a revolution in their lives."
Southern legislators began to find ways of limiting African-American rights. One of the major ways was to enact barriers to prevent them from voting. A series of laws were passed state by state in the south, ranging from literacy tests to poll taxes. This was an effort to keep blacks as far out of politics as possible without violating the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited governments in the nation from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color or previous condition of servitude."
By 1902, all 11 of the former Confederate states had enacted a poll tax, along with other measures. These included comprehension tests, voter intimidation and worse.
But during the tumultuous battles of the civil rights movements, activists saw poll taxes and similar policies as barriers to the voting rights of African Americans and the poor.
In 1962, the 24th Amendment was proposed. It prohibited the right to vote in federal elections from being contingent on the payment of a poll tax. It was ratified in 1964. Five states still retained the use of poll taxes for local elections.
Two years later, on March 24, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that poll taxes for any level of election were unconstitutional.
Lena Carr says she donated the 1955 Texas poll tax receipt from her uncle, Leo, partly because of her surprise that her family had been involved in the battle for voting rights in the Civil Rights era. The family found the receipt in a suitcase, after Leo's mother passed away. When they went through it, there it was. It was nestled among old family pictures.
"I really was surprised. Because my uncle never really talked a lot about voting," says Carr, 54. She lives in Kansas City. "It shocked me that he actually went out and participated and paid."
Carr says the other reason she chose to donate this piece of her family's history is because she thought it would be useful and inspiring.
"A lot of the young people don't realize the things people had to go through to vote," Carr says.
Carr says that she is concerned about the voting restrictions that are being enacted in states ranging from Texas to Virginia to Wisconsin.
In 2012, then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder blasted Texas over its voter ID law. "We call those poll taxes," Holder said. He added that many of those without IDs "would have to travel great distances to get them. And some would struggle to pay for the documents they might need to obtain them."
Smithsonian curator Bill Pretzer sees similarities.
"You have to have a particular kind of ID," he explains. That includes identification offered through the state or federal government, military IDs, a state handgun license, a U.S. citizenship certificate, or a U.S. passport.
"The kinds of documentation that's needed for this voter ID costs money," Pretzer says. "An individual who doesn't have their own transportation, or would need to take time off on an hourly basis . . . is going to suffer economically."
The Department of Justice is in ongoing litigation related to voter ID laws in both Texas and North Carolina, saying both states laws would "have the result of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group."
Texas was allowed to enforce its law during the 2014 elections.
Last August, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the Texas law discriminated against African-American and Latino voters. But it also said that a district court must re-examine its conclusion that Texas acted with discriminatory purpose, and that the lower court should seek ways to change the voter law without overturning it entirely.
At the time, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a statement saying the intent of the law "is to protect the voting process in Texas." He noted that the U.S. Court of appeals had rejected the claim that the law was a poll tax. The full 15-member Fifth Circuit has voted to hear the case again. Paxton called the decision "a strong step forward in (Texas') efforts to defend the state's voter ID laws."
The Carr family poll tax receipt will likely go on view in the new museum (which opens on September 24) some time in 2018. Until then, it will become available online. Pretzer says such artifacts are important because they make real something that is hard to imagine.