Black History Month, day 8

In the Jim Crow obstacle course exhibit, one obstacle is the poll tax. The poll tax in 1949 was $1: $9.05 in today’s dollars.

The stated purpose of the poll tax, in the case of Virginia, was to serve as “an elementary and objective intelligence test.” How so? One who could not come up with the tax lacked the “minimum intelligence for ordering one’s own affairs and participating in those of the state.” The effect, in state after state, was to disqualify black voters in disproportionate numbers.

The Supreme Court, in the decision that struck down the Virginia statute (Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, 1966), wrote that the state’s only legitimate interest in controlling who votes is to confirm that the voter is qualified. “Wealth or fee paying has, in our view, no relation to voting qualifications; the right to vote is too precious, too fundamental to be so burdened or conditioned.”

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