The November midterm elections are just around the corner and you have until October 9 to register to vote. Regardless of your political views, exercising your right to vote is an important part of the governmental process in Texas and the United States. But historically, the ability to vote was not equally available to Dallas residents. The voting rights struggle had a big impact on the evolution of Dallas as a city and left an imprint on the Dallas we know today.
The poll tax was used by many Southern states after reconstruction, as a way to disenfranchise voters, particularly black people. Introduced in Texas in 1902, the poll tax did indeed keep large numbers of Texans, including many African Americans, from voting because they often couldn’t afford to pay the tax. The tax remained even after women won the right to vote in 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
In 1964, the 24th Amendment finally declared the poll tax illegal for national elections. And in 1966, the Texas State Constitution was amended to comply with a Supreme Court ruling that declared state poll taxes illegal in state elections.
The poll tax in Texas had an impact on Dallas – evident in photographs such as this 1955 image of a billboard advertising “Be an active citizen…Pay Your Poll Tax”. The ad was paid for by W.A. Morrison, Presiding Judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Working to bring African Americans to voting booths, even with the poll tax in place, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) campaigned to get as many citizens as possible to pay the tax. That effort is depicted in this circa 1965 image taken by prominent African American photographer Marion Butts, titled “Pay Your Poll Tax Here” NAACP Poll Tax Campaign workers with signs from the campaign.
Dallas’ efforts to abolish the poll tax were long and hard-fought, and involved prominent local and national figures, as shown in this 1963 photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with (left to right) H. Rhett James, Rabbi Levi Olan, and J. A. Stanfield, on a visit in Dallas for Dallas County United Poll Tax Rally at the Fair Park Music Hall. Levi Olan was the rabbi for Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, and Rhett James was the chairman of the United Political Organization in Dallas County at the time.
Not long before the passage of the 24th Amendment, an unsuccessful attempt to repeal the poll tax in Texas made it on the Nov. 9, 1963 ballot. Notable figures in the Dallas civil rights movement campaigned for its repeal. Walter R. McMillan, Roosevelt Johnson, A. Maceo Smith, Pancho Medrano, Harold E. Holly, Rev. G. T. Thomas, and R. R. Revis fight against the poll tax — “Abolish the Poll Tax; Vote Yes for Freedom, Saturday Nov. 9” ran in the Dallas Express newspaper, as did the poll tax rally image of Dr. King earlier in the year, both taken by Marion Butts. The Dallas Express was a weekly newspaper that published from 1892-1970, focusing on African Americans.
Voting and elections in Dallas and Texas have many historical contexts which can be considered by utilizing the collections in the Dallas Public Library’s Dallas History & Archives Division. The collections include a number of historic photographs, some of which are available to view in the library’s online catalog.
Photographs such as the below image of a young woman demonstrating the use of a voting machine in 1965, or this 1952 Hayes Collection photograph of League of Women Voters members, Mrs. H. Thomas Goar, left and Mrs. W.J. Hilseweck demonstrating how to operate a voting booth provide a glimpse of women contributing to the electoral process as well as the voting equipment and technology employed in the mid-20th century.
If the history of Dallas’ mayoral elections is of more interest to you, this April 12, 1951 Hayes Collection photograph titled, Mayor Elect J.B. Adoue, Jr., hears congratulations upon his victory in the city election Tuesday, is one of many available to view in the Dallas Public Library’s archival holdings.
Or perhaps you are interested in how elections and civic responsibility were taught to Dallas students in the past. This photograph titled, Rev. Ernest C. Estell, speaking at the B. F. Darrell School, discusses voting by secret ballot with a group of young people was taken in 1950 by Marion Butts. The children were candidates in the fifth annual student council election at the B. F. Darrell School, each representing the Progressive or the Democratic Parties.
As you go to the polls in November, remember that today’s election becomes tomorrow’s history.
Want to learn more? Try searching online in the catalog. Go to “Advanced” and use the “Limit By” option to select “Digital Archive” then type in your topic.
Contact Dallas History & Archives Division, Dallas Public Library at (214) 670-1435 or email [email protected] with questions about the many fascinating photographic resources available.
Brandon Murray, a librarian and archivist in the Dallas Public Library’s Dallas History & Archives Division, writes about North Texas history for D Magazine. See more of this series here.