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Darryl Paulson: Black voter discrimination in Florida: The poll tax

Third of six parts.

Florida was the first state in the nation to adopt a poll tax.  In 1889 the Legislature adopted a $2 annual poll tax as a requirement for voting.  On the surface, there was nothing discriminatory about the tax.  Both whites and blacks had to pay it.

In reality, the legislators knew that the $2 tax would affect blacks more because they were so poor.  Although some poor whites also were disfranchised, they could often find ways to circumvent the tax.  Candidates often paid the cost to entice voters.  Election officials frequently “overlooked” the tax for whites.

Florida was one of only four states that relied extensively on the poll tax to impede black voting.  It was also among the first Southern state to abandon it in state elections and to push to abolish it in national elections. Florida officials were not having a change of heart, but they realized there were more effective ways to curtail black voting.

Florida abolished the poll tax in 1938 because so many candidates were trying to buy votes by paying the tax. U.S. Sen. Spessard Holland of Florida would be one of the leaders pushing to abolish the tax in federal elections.  In 1964 the 24th Amendment was approved abolishing the tax in federal elections.

Whites often used violence to intimidate potential black voters.  Immediately after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan formed in Tennessee and quickly spread throughout the South. It was strongest where the black population was largest.

Florida in the 19th century was fundamentally different than modern Florida.  As late as 1900, it was the least populated state east of the Mississippi and nearly half the population was black.  White Floridians worried about blacks getting voting rights and used violence to prevent that from happening.

From 1890 to 1930, Florida trailed only Mississippi in the number of lynchings per capita.

In 1920, Republicans had been organizing blacks to vote in Ocoee in central Florida.  Violence erupted when a black man attempted to vote.  According to the NAACP’s Walter White, who came to Ocoee to investigate the resulting massacre, 60 blacks were killed and 20 black homes were burned to the ground.  Three years later, Rosewood, a  lumber village near Cedar Key, was wiped off the map when the Klan and others killed eight black residents and burned down every black home.

Perhaps the most infamous violence occurred on Christmas Eve in 1951 when a bomb was placed under the home of Harry Moore, President of the Florida NAACP and the leader of a black voter-registration campaign.

Moore and his wife were killed and no one was ever arrested. In 2006, then-Attorney General Charlie Crist reopened the case and concluded that four Klan members were responsible for the bombing.  All of them were dead when the report was issued in 2008.

Part IV: The literacy test and grandfather clause

Written By

Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg.

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