Monthly Archive for January, 2012

On This Day in Civil Rights History: The 24th Amendment

On this day 48 years ago, poll taxes on federal elections were made illegal through a new amendment to the United States Constitution. A week after the Maine Legislature ratified the proposed 24th Amendment to the United States Constitution, South Dakota became the 38th state to ratify the amendment, thus providing the two-thirds majority required for a proposed amendment to become law.

Dating back to the Reconstruction Era, poll taxes were used for decades throughout the South to prevent poor people—particularly African Americans—from exercising their right to vote.

Florida Senator Spessard Holland—who many years earlier had helped repeal Florida’s poll tax—first proposed the 24th Amendment in 1949. Thirteen years later, in September 1962, the amendment was submitted to the states for ratification. And four months after submission, the proposed amendment became law.

At the time of ratification, five states retained the poll tax—Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia. The new amendment abolished poll taxes for federal elections, and within a few years poll taxes for state elections would also be abolished (see Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections).

The 24th Amendment helped pave the way for further voting rights legislation, leading to the passage, a year and a half later, of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed disfranchisement practices common across the South.

To learn more about the poll tax—and voting rights in general—take a look at this lengthy contextual report published by the National Park Service.

What Would Martin Luther King …?

It has become a tradition to speculate about how Martin Luther King would view today’s world. Today, we bring you our post-Martin Luther King Day roundup of the many claims about what the “drum major for peace” would have said about current events.

Martin Luther King in Memphis, 1968

  • Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther, claimed that her uncle gave his life to help everyone from “conception to natural death.” Would Martin Luther King have opposed abortion? It may not be possible to say. But we do know that in 1966, when King was awarded the Margaret Sanger Award by Planned Parenthood, he celebrated (through his wife, who read his speech) Sanger’s work and identified family planning as a crucial element of addressing poverty, especially in the black community.
  • In last night’s Republican debate, Texas Congressman Ron Paul claimed that “Martin Luther King would be in agreement with me on the wars.” Paul is opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and not a fan of international intervention in general. In fact, King would likely agree with Paul on this matter. In an August 1967 address to the group he led, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King called the war in Vietnam “unjust” and “evil.”
  • At a prayer breakfast in Raleigh, NC, North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue summoned King to criticize the voter identification bill vetoed recently by Perdue: “He might look at North Carolina, where a voter identification law is threatening to build new laws for elderly citizens, for low-income citizens, and for minority citizens, and he might say ‘what in the world are those people doing?'” With Republicans pushing voter ID laws around the country, the issue has galvanized activists who see parallels with such laws and those that historically prevented blacks (and poor whites) from voting. Indeed, King spoke forcefully on the right to vote in 1965, arguing that the threat of blacks and poor whites uniting to elect candidates who would work on their behalf was an underlying motivation for racial segregation. When poor whites cried out for food, King said, the white elite had them eat Jim Crow. (Read the speech here.)
  • Florida’s GOP Congressman Alan West had a message for President Obama from King: “My message to President Obama is this: “Mr. President, your very presence in office demonstrates Dr. King’s dream has indeed come true. But how devastated would Dr. King be to know the Americans who are still fomenting racism at the highest levels are the very people for whom he fought for and died?”
  • From the UK, a reprimand for American politicians: “For sure, it is not just some conservative Republicans who need to hang their heads in shame as we honor Dr King today. A number of my fellow Democrats should stand right next to them and ask themselves why, for example, they too have participated in the slow deterioration of our political system by allowing campaigns and political seats to be controlled by the highest bidder; and why most of them have remained largely silent as banks and corporations perpetually get bailed out as everyday Americans languish in financial ruin. Or why more Democrats have not wholeheartedly embraced the Occupy Wall Street movement, as I am sure Dr King would have.”

Remembering Ada Sipuel Fisher

On this day in 1948, the United States Supreme Court in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma made further strides in the decades-long struggle against segregation in higher education.

In 1946, Ada Sipuel Fisher, an African American graduate of Langston University, was denied admission to the University of Oklahoma’s law school. After the Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld a district court’s ruling against her, Fisher appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in January 1948.

Citing Missouri ex. rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), Fisher’s legal team (which included the now-famous civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall) argued that Oklahoma was required to provide secure legal education through a state institution in conformity with the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.

On January 12, only a few days after arguments began, the Supreme Court reversed the Supreme Court of Oklahoma’s original judgment, stating that Oklahoma must provide equal education at a state institution, and that it must do so as speedily as it would for white applicants.

However, this certainly wasn’t the end of Fisher’s troubles. Rather than admit her to the all-white school, Oklahoma announced that it would set up a separate law school specifically for black students. After Fisher’s lawyers threatened to again appeal to the Supreme Court, the University of Oklahoma finally admitted Sipuel in June 1949—three and a half years after her initial application.

Fisher later earned a JD and an MA from the University of Oklahoma. In 1992—more than forty years after her legal battles—she was appointed to the Board of Regents at the University of Oklahoma—the same board that had once fought so hard against admitting her to the school.

Following Fisher’s successful admission, several other African American students sought admission to the University of Oklahoma’s graduate programs. Perhaps the most famous of these students was George McLaurin, who, although eventually admitted to the school, was separated from the white students. In McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950), the Supreme Court argued that the differential treatment shown to McLaurin was itself a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Together, the decisions in Sipuel and McLaurin helped pave the way for further integration and equal treatment for all.

For a great collection of primary documents from the Sipuel proceedings, take a look at this digital archive.

Remembering the 1965 AFL All Stars

On this day in 1965, an unprecedented boycott by African American and white American Football League players ended in victory after AFL commissioner Joe Foss agreed to move the site of the 1965 All Star game from New Orleans to Houston.

On Sunday, January 10, nearly two dozen African American AFL players—with the support of several white teammates—announced that they would leave New Orleans and refuse to play in the All Star game (scheduled for the following weekend) unless the game’s location was changed.

Although they had been told they would be treated well during their time in New Orleans, the African American AFL players faced insults and even threats, and several were refused cab service and admittance to restaurants.

After a detailed discussion, the African American players voted to refuse to play in the scheduled game unless it was moved to another city. The protest cut across both racial and team lines, with several white players standing in solidarity with their African American teammates.

For once, social conscience won out: On January 11, AFL commissioner Joe Foss announced that the game would be held in Houston instead—a city which had reported no discrimination incidents involving athletes in the previous five years. Despite the short notice, the game went off without a hitch, and Foss thanked the people of Houston for their support.

Coming in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this strong—and demographically inclusive—stand against hostility and unequal treatment helped bring into national discussion the struggles yet to be faced in the long process of dismantling discriminatory practices.

For a detailed contextual summary, take a look at this great Houston Chronicle article from several years ago.

DocSouth Books Are Now Available!

UNC Press and the University of North Carolina Library are pleased to announce that the first twelve DocSouth Books are now available in both print-on-demand paperback and e-book formats. This collaborative effort brings back into print several classic works from the digital library of Documenting the American South and makes them available to new generations for a variety of uses.

Comprising slave narratives, a collection of slave songs, and a call-to-arms pamphlet by a free black man, the DocSouth Books program makes accessible in book form several compelling and enlightening texts from the nineteenth century. For example, Uncle Tom’s Story of His Life: An Autobiography of the Reverend Josiah Henson is traditionally thought to have inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Also included is Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave, which was recently slated for Hollywood adaptation by Brad Pitt.

The DocSouth Books are newly typeset for readability but otherwise unaltered from the original publications, with the original page numbers preserved. Print-on-demand copies range from $15 to $40. Downloadable e-book versions, priced between $8 and $17, are available for the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, and the Barnes & Noble Nook.

Launched in 1996, the Documenting the American South online collection includes more than 1,400 digitized books, as well as maps, images, oral histories, manuscripts, and primary source material. The first twelve DocSouth Books represent the most frequently studied and requested texts in the Documenting the American South collection. The collaboration between Documenting the American South and UNC Press uses the latest technologies in digital publishing to bring affordable and unaltered versions of these rare texts to an audience of students, scholars, and general readers of all ages.

“Users now have two new ways to engage with these books,” said Jenn Riley, head of the Carolina Digital Library and Archives. “This collaboration with UNC Press makes perfect sense as a way to expand the scope of Documenting the American South.”

“UNC Press and the UNC Libraries have a long history of collaboration, and this is another great example of what has been a fruitful partnership,” said Mark Simpson-Vos, Editorial Director of UNC Press. “The publishing processes we have put in place for DocSouth Books promise to yield dividends for years to come.”

Remembering Rosewood

This weekend marks the 89th anniversary of the culmination of the Rosewood Massacre—a weeklong riot that left at least eight individuals (two white and six black) dead and a predominantly African American town burned to the ground.

Earlier this week, The Grio printed one man’s report of his conversations with Robie Mortin (deceased June 2010), who was the last living survivor of the Rosewood massacre, and the niece of one victim, Sam Carter.

Rooted in accusations identical to those which led to riots and lynchings across America, the violence began on January 1, 1923, after a white woman accused a black man of sexually assaulting her. A group of white men took matters into their own hands; what started out as a sheriff-led search for an alleged attacker quickly dissolved into a race war.

Amid the violence, many black Rosewood residents fled to nearby swamps and woods, and many more were evacuated to Gainesville. None of these residents would return.

By Sunday, January 8th, every black house in Rosewood had been torched. Today, all that remains of Rosewood is a highway marker and a few pieces of buildings. With all survivors long-since gone, the memory of Rosewood remains alive in history books, newspaper articles, and a Hollywood movie.

Although Florida’s governor, Cary Hardee, ordered a grand jury investigation soon after the events, no indictments were ever handed down. The survivors did not receive reparations from the state until 1994—71 years after that horrific week.

For a detailed account of the context and events which surrounded the massacre, take a look at this December 1993 report.