Poll taxes, intimidation and impossible tests: the experience of African American voters in the 1950s

16 September 2016

Cultural Studies | History

How many people are on the United States government payroll? If you don’t know the answer to this question, and particularly if you were an African American living in the 1950s, then chances are you would not have been allowed to vote. Last Friday, the 9th September, was the 59th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s Civil Rights Act. Although there were criticisms at the time as to its efficacy and even motives, it was significant in being the first civil rights legislation to be passed in 82 years. Responses to, and analyses of this legislation can be explored in the upcoming Race Relations in America resource.

Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) prepared a statement in support of the pending civil rights legislation, giving examples of the impossible questions used to test potential African American voters. This was just one small example of the obstacles to be overcome in pursuit of a vote. Another document offers an insight into the political conditions in which this bill was introduced: 

Letter from the Secretary of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, 8 February 1957. Image © Amistad Research Center, New Orleans. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Letter from the Secretary of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, 8 February 1957. Image Â© Amistad Research Center, New Orleans. Further reproduction prohibited without perission.

Incidentally, it was just as well that the bill was introduced so early, as it provoked what is still the longest one-person filibuster in American history. Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond, an ardent segregationist, talked for 24 hours 18 minutes in an attempt to keep the bill from becoming law.

The main focus of the act was improving voting rights, through the establishment of the Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department, the creation of a Commission on Civil Rights, and the empowerment of federal officials to prosecute individuals conspiring to deny another citizen’s right to vote by reason of their colour, race, religion or national origin. It aimed to increase the number of registered black voters who, until this point, numbered only around 20% of the African American community. In the rural South official apathy, discriminatory rules (including literacy tests and poll taxes), intimidation, and even violence had prevented many African Americans from registering their vote.

Photograph of African Americans at a polling station, c.1946. Image © Amistad Research Center, New Orleans. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 Photograph of African Americans at a polling station, c. 1946. Image Â© Amistad Research Center, New Orleans. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

For those interested in the effects of such legislation, the speeches given at the Race Relations Institute in the years that followed dealt unflinchingly with the successes and failures of federal involvement in the civil rights movement. The attitude of the white population in Tuskegee, Alabama, to the discovery and potential abolition of their discriminatory practices, is summed up by Lewis W. Jones, a sociologist: 

Lewis W. Jones, Struggle for the Vote at Tuskegee, 1958. Image © Amistad Research Center, New Orleans. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Lewis W. Jones, Struggle for the Vote at Tuskegee, 1958. Image Â©  Amistad Research Center, New Orleans. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

This recognition that African American voters should be protected and encouraged threatened not only the political sphere but the whole social order of the South. Other speakers at the Institute highlighted that the low registration rate was the product of widespread and historical discrimination in all aspects of life, which gave rise to poverty, lack of education, and apathy or aversion towards politics in the low registration rate. These would not be solved by a single civil rights act, aimed at removing restrictions towards registration, but widespread, intensive campaigns by organisations such as the NAACP.

Whilst the 1957 Civil Rights Act had its limitations, it did represent a growing recognition of the need for federal commitment to the cause of civil rights and ended nearly a century of congressional inaction.

Race Relations in America is available now. To find out more about this resource, read the press release here or contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Sophie Heath

Sophie Heath

I am an Editor at Adam Matthew. Since joining the team in March 2013 I have worked on a number of exciting projects, from the First World War to American History, Church Missionary Society Periodicals, and Race Relations in America - very different but fascinating projects! My academic background is in foreign languages, in particular French and Italian, and I have really enjoyed putting this to good use when working with the foreign language material in our resources.

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