The poll tax restricted access to the ballot box for minorities, women, and poor voters for much of the 20th century. Public domain image.
For the better part of a century in post-Civil War America, Texas and other states enforced racial segregation and other legalized forms of discrimination against African Americans via a legal code known as “Jim Crow” laws.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court had mandated in Plessy v. Ferguson that segregated public facilities and school systems should be “separate but equal”, this was rarely enforced, and African-Americans were routinely compelled to accept inferior conditions or restricted access in schools, public restrooms, hospitals, and public transit. Black Americans were also prohibited from patronizing many hotels, stores, parks, theatres, and restaurants, or were limited to restricted hours or specified entrances and seating areas. In Texas and other states, Jim Crow laws even prohibited interracial marriage, which was punishable by jail time, fines, and subject to forced annulment.
As the civil rights movement gained steam, the practices and public policy upheld by Jim Crow laws were slowly struck down in a series of court cases—most notably Brown v. Board of Education (which outlawed segregated public schools); Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (which gave the federal government the right to force private businesses to accommodate black patrons); the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Texas poll tax, payment of which was required before citizens could receive ballots, was directly connected to the state laws that discriminated against African Americans. Many could not afford the tax, or they ran into strategically-erected barriers when trying to satisfy the requirement.
Local election officials were generally free to impose other “eligibility requirements” and barriers for black voters, such as proof of property ownership, purging of names from voter registration rolls, and “blacks only” polling places in locations that were difficult to reach. Many of these practices kept women, Hispanic voters, and poor whites from the ballot box as well.
In 1964, U.S. states ratified the 24th Amendment that outlawed the levying of poll taxes for federal elections. In 1966, Texas amended the state constitution to repeal poll taxes for state and local elections as well.
Additional Learning: “Historic Photos Show Jim Crow Life in Segregated Texas”