Volume 18: Voting in the 2004 Elections
Today, most citizens register to vote without regard to race or color by signing their name and address on something like a postcard when, for example, they get a driver's license. But it was not always so.
Blacks who tried to register, along with their families, were routinely intimidated and harassed by various state, county, and local police forces—all White of course. Sometimes they were even arrested on false charges.
Throughout the deep South, White businesses, employers, banks, and landlords were organized into White Citizens Councils who imposed economic retaliation against non-Whites who tried to vote. And if economic pressure proved insufficient, the Ku Klux Klan was ready with violence and mayhem.
A Typical Alabama Registration Process
In the rural counties where most folk lived, you had to go down to the courthouse to register. The Registrar's Office was only open two or three days each month for a couple of hours, usually in the morning or afternoon. You had to take off work—with or without your employer's permission—to register. And if a White employer gave such permission, or failed to fire an African-American who tried to vote, he could be driven out of business by economic retaliation from the Citizens Council.
On the occasional registration day, the county Sheriff and his deputies made it their business to hang around the courthouse to discourage "undesirables" from trying to register. This meant that Black women and men had to run a gauntlet of intimidation, insults, and threats just to get to the registration office. Once in the Registrar's Office they faced hatred, humiliation, and harassment from clerks and officials.
The Alabama Application Form and oaths you had to take were four pages long. You had to swear that your answers to every single question were true under penalty of perjury. And you knew that the information you entered on the form would be passed on to the Citizens Council and KKK.
Many counties used what they called the "voucher system." You had to have someone who was already a registered voter "vouch" for you—under oath and penalty of perjury—that you met the residency qualification to vote. In some counties this "supporting witness" had to accompany you to the Registrar's Office, in others they were interviewed elsewhere. Some counties limited the number of new applicants a registered voter could vouch for in a given year to two or three. Since no White voter would dare vouch for a Black applicant, in counties where only a handful of African-Americans were already registered only a few more each year could be added to the rolls. And in counties were no African-Americans were registered, none ever could because they had no one to vouch for them.
In addition to completing the application and swearing the oaths, you had to pass the actual "Literacy Test" itself. This was usually a three-part oral and written quiz:
Some people ask how anyone, White or Black, ever got through this mess to actually register? A good question. As a matter of public record, White registration in Alabama was very high, while Black registration was minuscule. In the counties where African-Americans were the majority of the population, White registration was close to, or over, 100% (in some cases as high as 115%), while Black registration was zero or close to it.
White registration could be over 100% because when White voters died or moved out of the area their names were kept on the voting list. Oddly enough, many of them (even the dead ones), still somehow managed to actually vote (usually for the incumbent) every election day. This was commonly referred to as the "tombstone vote" and to the local politicians it was a miracle of Southern democracy.
Copyright © 2002-2003 Civil Rights Movement Veterans. Reprinted with permission. For more information visit their Web site at www.crmvet.org.
Sample Alabama Literacy Test
1. What body can try impeachments of the president of the United States?