Voting Rights Act Exhibit Now Open in the State Archives Search Room

[This blog post was written by Josh Hager, Reference Archivist in the Reference Unit of the Collections Services Section.]

Voting Rights Act Exhibit Now Open in the State Archives Search Room

For the rest of February, the State Archives of North Carolina is proud to present the exhibit, “Democracy for All the People: The Voting Rights Act in North Carolina.” This exhibit commemorates both Black History Month and the 50th Anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, signed into law in August 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Dr. Martin Luther King at NC Central, 1966 [Call number: N.98.7.70]

Dr. Martin Luther King at NC Central, 1966 [Call number: N.98.7.70]. Dr. King was generally considered the most prominent advocate for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to end the legal disenfranchisement of minorities at the ballot box. In certain states and counties until 1965, election officials had the right to prevent an African-American from registering to vote through the use of the poll tax and the literacy test. The poll tax required citizens to pay a tax in order to maintain their voter registration. The poll tax technically applied to both white and African-American citizens, but the relative poverty of the African-American population throughout the South meant that the poll tax served as an effective disenfranchisement tool. The average poll tax in 1900 was $1.00 which was roughly equivalent to the one-half of one percent of an African-American farm laborer’s annual income. [1]

The literacy test as a blanket term applies to any requirement that potential voters read or write a passage on demand or answer questions about government in order to vote. In practice, election officials used the literacy test to disenfranchise African-Americans through applying impossibly rigid standards to pass. In North Carolina, the literacy test required that citizens read or write a portion of the state constitution, although election officials would occasionally require a potential voter to recite a portion from memory if he or she successfully completed the initial task. The literacy test law also included an exemption for those citizens that election officials deemed to have a strong educational background, which effectively meant white officials exempted white voters.

Telegram, Shirley Jackson to Congressman Roy Taylor, April 2, 1965 [Call number: PC.1613.51]

Telegram, Shirley Jackson to Congressman Roy Taylor, April 2, 1965 [Call number: PC.1613.51]

North Carolina had a mixed record on voting rights before the Voting Rights Act. North Carolina first implemented the poll tax in 1902 and kept in on the books until 1920, when the General Assembly outlawed it. Certain counties stopped enforcing the literacy test over time, most notably Wake, Durham, and Mecklenburg. The combination of these factors led to a higher percentage of the African-American population having the ability to vote in North Carolina than in other states. However, many African-American North Carolinians faced disenfranchisement thanks to the literacy test. In fact, in 1959, the State Supreme Court upheld the legality of the literacy test as a prerequisite for voting despite the argument that the literacy test’s very existence violated the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed both the poll tax and the literacy test, amongst other measures designed to foster equality at the ballot box. African-American registration to vote skyrocketed throughout the South. However, the journey to passage was not easy. Many citizens and public officials fought against the Act, arguing that it was a federal overreach into the state matter of election management. “Democracy for All the People” contains letters from private citizens that document both sides of this often rancorous debate.

Look for more blogs in the weeks to come on specific subjects related to the Voting Rights Act in North Carolina. For now, we encourage you to visit the Search Room to see the exhibit and commemorate this important anniversary in modern American history.

[1] Richard M. Valelly, The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pg. 125-126.