Martin Luther King's Compromise That Turned The South Red

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s efforts to eliminate the poll tax would in the end help poor whites as much as it did disenfranchised blacks.

01.19.15 10:45 AM ET

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign in Selma which led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is well known and is now celebrated on screen in  “Selma.” Less well known is how, at a critical moment, Dr. King saved the act when it was stalemated in the Congress.

The stalemate was created this time by liberal Democrats in Congress, not Southern segregationists. Today, Dr. King's 86th birthday, is a fitting moment to remember how his intervention at the final moment enabled millions of poor whites as well as blacks to vote, with the ironic result that the South has become the most "red" section of America.

The source of the trouble was the poll tax. Civil rights activists, including Dr. King, believed that the tax was a significant obstacle for those who had succeeded in registering  to vote. When Southern whites returned to power after the death of Reconstruction they embedded devices in their state constitutions designed to circumvent the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments—literacy tests, residency and property qualifications, and poll taxes. The intent of the laws was explicit: “The plan,” said one Mississippi official in 1890, “is to invest permanently the powers of government in the hands of the people who ought to have them—the white people.”

And so it was for nearly a century. When Rosa Parks, on her third attempt, succeeded in registering to vote in 1945, she faced one final hurdle: a poll tax of $1.50 cents. That may not seem like much, but black voters were forced to pay it retroactively, so Parks, at 42, paid $16.50 , “a considerable amount of money,” she later noted.

When the Voting Rights Act was submitted to the Congress in March 1965, liberal legislators saw it as an opportunity to abolish the tax. But Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and President Lyndon Johnson were reluctant to support them because of constitutional impediments.

In 1964, the country had ratified the Twenty-Fourth Amendment abolishing poll taxes in federal elections, which meant that only by constitutional amendment could local poll taxes be eliminated. Furthermore, Supreme Court decisions in 1937 and 1951 had found that poll taxes did not necessarily discriminate against blacks and thus did not violate  the Fifteenth Amendment. Eliminating the tax in state and local elections by statute, Johnson feared, might lead the Supreme Court to declare the entire Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, so the Senate’s version of the bill did not include that provision.

Nevertheless, liberal Senators on the Judiciary Committee led by Massachusetts’ Edward M. Kennedy plunged ahead, ignoring pressures from Johnson, who felt the amendment threatened the survival of the bill. .As the debate over Kennedy’s amendment opened, many observers felt the vote would be close, although Majority Leader Mike Mansfield believed he had the votes to defeat Kennedy. But he was wrong. By a narrow margin of four votes the Committee added an amendment to the voting rights bill which killed the poll tax.

Would the full Senate agree to that version of the bill when it came to a vote on May 12, 1965? Liberals remained confident despite the close vote in the Judiciary Committee.  

Kennedy, armed with advice from Harvard and Howard University Law School professors as well as the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, spoke with every member of the Senate, including the most intransigent southerners. He and New York Republican Jacob Javits spent hours plotting strategy, trying to find ways to convince their fellow senators to support the elimination of the poll tax. The hard-line liberals’ opponents, meanwhile, tried to counteract their efforts by insisting that such an amendment might derail the bill. The president worked the phones—begging, cajoling, threatening.

Ted Kennedy made the case as the debate began. He emphasized the cost the poll tax imposed on southern blacks as well as poor whites; often the tax amounted to almost a day’s salary for many impoverished Southerners. Clearly that was unconstitutional, he insisted. But the President’s opposition and private arm twisting proved too much for the liberals. By a vote of 49 to 44, Kennedy’s amendment was defeated.

The poll tax ban gained new energy when the bill reached the House. Speaker John McCormack endorsed it and it became part of the House version of the bill. Johnson was both angry and depressed. “McCormack was afraid that somebody would be stronger for the Negro than he was,” he later complained, “so he came out red hot for complete repeal.”

Any changes by the House to the Senate’s bill would require a conference committee in which representatives and senators would have to resolve their differences. This would result in a long delay in enacting the legislation. Worse still, any changed bill had to start all over again in either the Senate, where a southern filibuster loomed, or in the House, where Howard Smith’s Rules Committee would block it until a discharge petition was filed, which would take another three weeks—all while a restive Congress yearned to recess for the summer. Surely, Johnson thought, his enemies would take advantage of the delays and the bill would die. “They been doin’ that for thirty-five years that I been here,” Johnson moaned, “and I been watchin’ ’em do it.”

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The new bill, which contained the ban, passed the full House and immediately went to a joint House-Senate Conference Committee to resolve the differences.

But the committee couldn’t. Meetings dragged on into late July. Johnson and his attorney general were on the brink of despair. Katzenbach called the president’s handiwork that “damned bill.”  Johnson feared that the opposition would use the poll tax as an excuse to continue their public debate, which would destroy the Voting Rights Act and his entire liberal agenda. Something had to be done.

To break the stalemate Johnson turned to Martin Luther King. On the night of July 28, Attorney General Katzenbach spoke to King at length about the bill’s problems in the Conference Committee. King detested the poll tax and was disappointed when the Senate rejected the Kennedy amendment on May 12. Nonetheless, he certainly did not want the House ban to threaten the bill from becoming law. Katzenbach promised to add a new explicit statement, formally asserting that the tax deprived blacks of the right to vote, and he promised to order the Justice Department to sue those four states that still required it. King consented and dictated a statement that could be used to placate the liberal opposition.

“While I would have preferred that the bill eliminate the poll tax once and for all,” King’s statement read, “it does contain an express declaration by Congress that the poll tax abridges and denies the right to vote. I am confident that the poll tax provision… —with vigorous action by the Attorney General—will operate finally to bury this iniquitous device.” With the Congress expressing its opposition to the tax, surely the Supreme Court would not reject the will of the people and would eventually abolish the tax.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to civil rights marchers at end of Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march. March 25, 1965

Stephen Somerstein

King’s  declaration broke the logjam. On July 29 the liberals on the House-Senate Conference Committee agreed to eliminate the ban, and in response, conservatives dropped their demands. Four days later the House, by a vote of 328 to 74, approved the Conference Committee’s report and, with it, the Voting Rights Bill. The Senate voted on August 4, passing the bill by a vote of 79 to 18, and the President signed it into law on August 6, 1965. Seven months later, on March 7, 1966, the first anniversary of  “Bloody Sunday,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Act was constitutional. Congress, it said, had responded correctly in redressing a historic grievance when it enforced the Fifteenth Amendment by passing the Voting Rights Act. “Hopefully, millions of non-white Americans will now be able to participate for the first time on an equal basis in the government under which they live,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren. (The Court, in Katzenbach v. Morgan, reaffirmed that stand in April.)

The Attorney General kept his promise to Dr. King. The Justice Department filed lawsuits against those states which still levied poll taxes in local elections: Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia. The Supreme Court heard the Virginia case and on March 24,1966, declared in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections that the poll tax violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The poll tax was now officially dead.

The first test of the Voting Rights Act came in Alabama’s Democratic primary election  in May, 1966. For the first time since Reconstruction, African Americans ran for state offices and voted in large numbers. But most black candidates lost because of the ironic result of the death of the poll tax. While poor blacks had been empowered, so had poor whites. By eliminating the literacy tests and the poll tax, the Voting Rights Act gave many poor whites the opportunity to register and cast ballots. They elected Lurleen Wallace  as governor, extending the power of her husband who was ineligible to serve another term. A skillful get-out-the-vote campaign by Wallace’s staff added 110,000 new voters to the white majority, decreasing black influence even as the number of black voters grew. This phenomenon was not limited to Alabama. Throughout the South, many of the new registrants were white.

As we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday today, impoverished white Southerners should thank Dr. King, the white liberator, for giving them the power to vote.