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Albert Parker

Dictatorship in the South

(May 1941)

From Fourth International, Vol. 2 No. 4, May 1941, pp. 115–118.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Although the illusion that the Democratic Administration at Washington is their government may be accepted by many workers in the North today, a Negro would have to be very gullible to be taken in by it. The argument advanced by Northern democrats of the capitalized or uncapitalized variety that “After all, it is you, the people, who elect the government and therefore it is you who are responsible for the laws of this great democracy” cannot convince the millions of Negro sharecroppers and workers who are more or less openly denied the right to vote, both by law and by terrorism.

It took a long and bloody civil war, in which the bourgeois-Republican government had to militarize over 200,000 Negroes whom it had had no intention of freeing in the first place, before the Negro people were legally recognized as human beings with equal rights, even in respect to the ballot.

But, just as the right to vote was won by force and violence and the establishment of a Northern dictatorship over the South, so was it taken away. The Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations beat up and murdered the Negro voters in all the areas of the South where they could get away with it. By force and by corruption at the polls, the landlords began to recover full political power in one state after another in the 12 years following the end of the Civil War.

Finally, in 1876, the Republican industrialists of the North concluded an agreement with the Democratic landlords of the South, at the expense of the Negroes and poor whites. In return for four years’ more control of the White House, the Republicans removed the Northern troops from Southern territory and gave back complete control of the South to the land-holding ruling class that had conducted the war against the North.

The Fifteenth Amendment, however, remained on the books, and it was not possible in all places to mobilize sufficient forces to keep the Negroes from the ballot by violence alone. Ingenious lawyers were set to work by the ruling class to devise state legislation to disfranchise the Negro “legally.” Constitutional conventions were called in most of the southern states to enact these new devices into law. Mississippi showed the way; the other states that followed “improved” on the Mississippi model, which accomplished its purpose without violating the written word of the Federal Constitution.

The principal devices for disfranchising the Negro adopted at that time, most of which have been carried over to the present day, are the following: the payment of poll or other taxes before registration can take place, literacy qualifications, property qualifications, the “grandfather clause.”

Virginia – A Mirror of “Democracy”

A typical example of the proceedings of these state conventions may be found in the Virginia convention of 1901, at which Carter Glass, “Unreconstructed Rebel” and Roosevelt’s dear friend, made his first bid for fame.

The Negro had been almost completely disfranchised in Virginia, by that time. But the ruling class, fearing a future alliance at the polls between white and Negro sharecroppers and small farmers, called this convention to “protect and guarantee” white supremacy, that is to say, to legalize the disfranchisement of the Negro, and through it, of many whites as well.

Glass, one of the leading advocates of the $1.50 poll tax, was loud in his promises to the delegates that the poor whites would not be affected by it. He spent most of his energy explaining the advantages of adopting his own “understanding clause” in addition to the poll tax. Under this, a Negro applicant who wants to vote and has already paid his poll tax, can be disqualified if he cannot “understand” some selected clauses of the constitution, and “explain them to the satisfaction of the white election official.” In some states, as Roscoe Conklin Simmons of the Chicago Defender puts it, these questions may be “something like this: ‘What is the difference between a pure democracy and governments described in the Federalist’.”

In this way, any Negro may be kept from the ballot in a “legal” way, and indeed many a Negro of college education in the South has been found who couldn’t explain these things to the “satisfaction” of the officials.

Glass took the floor to point with pride to

“... the uncontroverted fact that the article of suffrage which the convention will today adopt does not necessarily deprive a single white man of the ballot, but will inevitably oust from the existing electorate four-fifths of the Negro voters. That was the purpose of the convention; that will be its achievement.”

When someone asked if the Negro was not being deprived of his vote by fraud and discrimination, Glass answered:

“By fraud, no; by discrimination, yes. But it will be discrimination within the letter of the law, and not in violation of the law. Discrimination! Why that is precisely what we propose; that exactly is what this convention was elected for – to discriminate to the very extremity permissible under the limitations of the Federal Constitution with a view to the elimination of every Negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate ... As has been said, we have accomplished our purpose strictly within the limitations of the Federal Constitution by legislating against the characteristics of the black race, and not against the ‘race, color or previous condition’ of the people themselves. It is a fine discrimination, indeed, that we have practiced in the fabrication of this plan.”

While the delegates may have agreed that this was a “fine” discrimination, they were not sure that the poor white farmers might not understand that they too could be barred in great numbers from the ballot and therefore vote against this constitution, so the convention agreed not to submit it to the voters. Like Mississippi’s, the new Virginia constitution was just proclaimed in effect, and left at that.

That the fears of the small farmers and sharecroppers had been justified was shown at the very next election. Of a population of 1,854,184 in the 1900 presidential election, 264,095, or 14.2% had voted. In 1904, after the new constitution went into effect, the total vote was 129,111 – or less than half the vote of 1900, which had already been much lower than the national average because of the terror employed against Negro voters.

It is interesting to note that Virginia is supposed to be one of the more advanced and liberal southern states, being one of the old border states. Nevertheless, although its population increased over 800,000 from 1900 to 1940, and its voting population increased by more than 80,000 in the same period, it has never regained to this day the same percentage of voting population it had in 1900 prior to the proclamation of the new constitution. In the 1940 presidential election, only 12.9% of the people were permitted into the polls.

Devices of Disfranchisement

In many states clauses were adopted which were supposed to guarantee to the poor or the unlettered whites that they would not be discriminated against by such things as literacy and “understanding” tests. Among these was the “grandfather clause,” which was finally declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1914, when many other substitutes for it had already been found and put into practice. This clause gave the voting right to those who themselves or whose parents had had it prior to a certain date. The date set in each case was 1861 or earlier, before the slaves had been freed. It accorded permanent registration without tax or other qualifications, and was designed to eradicate the suspicion of the poor whites that they, too, would be disfranchised.

This clause, however, was never very widely used. In his book, Race, Class and Party, Paul Lewinson quotes the fears of an Alabama newspaper that there were “large numbers of Negroes, who perhaps would not be unable to establish legitimacy of birth, but who could nevertheless easily establish the identity of white fathers and grandfathers” and thus win a vote. But it is certain that the southern landlords were not sorry to see this law wiped off the books, for with it went the bother of troubling about a large section of the poor white vote.

Another measure designed to gain support of the illiterate whites was the property qualification which is still used in some states as an alternative to literacy tests. In Alabama, for example, 40 acres of land or $300 worth of property, in Georgia, 40 acres of land or $500 of property, entitle an individual to a vote. Possession of this property permits admitted illiterates the right to vote.

While many variants of the old devices are still in use, even though court rulings have sometimes made it necessary to streamline them, the two main legal devices of present day usage are the poll tax and the white primary laws.

The poll tax legislation was quite frankly intended, as were the other devices, to strike at the “characteristics” of the Negro people, both real and assumed, as a means of getting around the amendments to the federal constitution that prohibit discrimination because of race or color. And the Supreme Court did not find in it any violation of the 14th Amendment because it could find “nothing in the text of the provision that could possibly be said to expressly discriminate because of race or color.” In other words, according to the court, the fact that the Negroes, because of their economic status, could not or did not pay the poll tax was not the fault of the statute, and therefore could not be held against the statute.

The three main “characteristics” of the Negro, on which the southern legislators based their device of disfranchisment, were his “poverty,” his “laziness,” and his habit of being “notoriously careless about keeping receipts of any kind.” Actually, it was only the first that really characterized the average Negro in the South; the others were added as trimmings for “white supremacy.”

Certainly, to the average Negro sharecropper, the sum of $1.00 to $3.00 a year is not a light consideration. Payment of such a poll tax is a heavy price for what is not yet the right to vote but only the right to register to vote, as will be shown later in discussing the white primary. Allan A. Michie and Frank Ryhlick, in their book Dixie Demagogues, say of the Texas poll tax:

“The $1.75 poll tax seems small, but, to hundreds of thousands of impoverished whites, Mexicans and Negroes, it represents food for another week or a new pair of shoes for one of the children.”

Only a rare individual would deprive his family of $1.75, when it means so much, for the privilege of paying a poll tax which by itself gives no guarantee of a vote.

In many poll-tax states, not only is payment of the poll tax for the current year required, but payment of all accumulated poll taxes for previous years as well! Moreover, in Georgia, for example, penalties are attached to late payment of the tax amounting to a 7% interest fee and a collection fee. It is easy to understand why, once a sharecropper falls behind in payment of his tax, it is almost impossible for him ever to catch up again. His disfranchisement becomes practically permanent.

In most states the legislators took advantage of the second “characteristic” of “laziness” by setting the date for payment of the poll tax a good many months before the elections or the primaries. Since the Negro was “lazy,” they figured, he would never bother to pay his tax so long before elections.

In Texas, the tax must be paid on or before January 31. “That is winter, even in Texas,” Michie and Ryhlick point out, “when conditions are hardest and the primaries are several months off. Even if a citizen gets excited over the election later in the year, he cannot enfranchise himself under any provision.”

The third “characteristic,” keeping receipts, may seem trivial, but it is not really so. Not only is payment of the poll tax made mandatory, but producing the receipt for it before registration or election officials. In the long period between payment of the poll tax and the elections, many people may lose their receipts. Election officials may then exclude Negroes from registration, while admitting to the polls their white political friends who hadn’t paid the tax by the simple expedient of forgetting to ask for it.

The poll tax money is also craftily used to bribe the white voters into acquiescence. Of the $1.75 collected in Texas, $1.50 goes to the state and $.25 to the county. $1.00 of the state’s share goes into the school fund, and the demagogues offer the masses of disfranchised workers this alternative: either keep up the poll tax or ruin the school system of the state and deprive your children of all opportunity to get an education.

The “Democratic Primary”

While the poll tax denies millions of both Negroes and whites the right to vote, the “white primary,” or “Democratic primary,” as it is sometimes called, is a measure much more clearly aimed at the Negro alone.

This measure was invented to hold back the few Negroes who manage to get past the other barriers of poll tax, literacy, understanding, property, etc. Under present conditions in the South, it is more effective than the others, because while the overcoming of the other obstacles depends to a very small extent upon the position of the individual, the white primary applies to the Negro people as a whole and excludes them as such.

This device is based upon the idea that a political party has the right to determine who shall belong to it and who shall participate in its primary elections which select its candidates and determine its policies. Under it, the party’s state or county committees may and do decide that no Negro of whatever political viewpoint is eligible for membership or participation in the primaries, at the same time that thousands of white Republicans are freely admitted to vote in all its primary elections.

This situation prevails only because the South, like Germany, Italy and other totalitarian places, suffers under one-party rule. The Republican Party doesn’t amount to two cents there, and the Democratic ticket alone wins the elections. To be able to vote in the regular elections under these conditions without having voted in the primaries is useless, as the real elections in the South take place in the Democratic primaries, where campaigning is heated and places fiercely contested for. It is well known that far more people vote in the Democratic primaries than in the regular elections for all parties. Most people don’t bother to go to the polls for regular elections because the winning candidate has already been chosen and the issues settled in the primaries. Casting a vote for the Republican Party in the South is like casting it into the Atlantic, and minority parties can’t even get on the ballot.

Under the white primary device, therefore, the Negro who has passed all other tests is given the right to vote only for those candidates and platforms which have been decided in a white man’s primary, from which he has already been excluded.

It is understandable why most Negroes don’t bother to go through all the other obstacles to voting. It is not surprising that they don’t want to spend from $1 to $3 for the useless right to vote for candidates whom they had no part in choosing, or for candidates who are certain to be defeated. It is no wonder that The Waco Messenger in January of this year, while complaining bitterly about the indifference of the average Negro voter to the approaching deadline for payment of the poll tax, was able, in attempting to correct this attitude, only to point to “other elections,” such as those for the school board and the city commission, where there are no primaries (and no very important questions are settled).

Just as the poll tax has been taken to the courts, so the white primary is being contested there too. Leo Alilunas, in his Legal Restrictions on the Negro in Politics, in The Journal of Negro History, April 1940, has correctly summed up the attitude of the courts to date:

“The expedient adopted by the Democratic party in the various states has been recognized by the judiciary, both state and federal, as being constitutional, and not in violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments. The judiciary has ruled that a party, being a voluntary organization, is competent to determine its personnel.”

The Stronghold of Reaction

Now what is the effect of these measures on political life in the South, and, through the South, on the Nation? First of all, it means that the masses of people, Negro and white, have no method of registering protests at the polls against anything or anyone. Secondly, it means that they play no more part in southern government than do the inhabitants of Alaska. Thirdly, it means that the political and state machinery of the South belong to the ruling class just as completely and openly as the land and factory machinery belong to them. Fourthly, it means that the South sends to Congress, year after year, the most reactionary political figures in the nation, who feel no pressure whatsoever from those whom they are supposed to represent, and who play a role in Washington legislation far out of proportion to the number of people who elected them.

An examination of voting percentages during the 1940 presidential elections shows clearly what kind of democracy exists in those southern states whose representatives are the staunchest defenders of the President’s program for a “war for democracy.”



Percentage of
Population That
Voted in 1940

South Carolina


















North Carolina








As compared with these states, Illinois got a 53.4% vote. Other states in the northern, eastern and western sections of the country ranged down from that figure through the 50’s and 40’s. The national average was 35%. That is to say, only 2 of the 13 southern states came anywhere near the national average, which, it must be remembered, is lowered precisely by these southern states.

By restricting the right of franchise to the ruling class and its middle class retainers, the “representatives of the people” in the South are able to return to the same seat in Congress again and again. The turn-over from the South being much smaller than the other states, where greater electoral participation by the masses succeeds in sweeping unpopular officials out of office more quickly, southern politicians usually have greater seniority than others.

As a result, they have a stranglehold on important and strategic positions in all the leading committees of Congress, where they faithfully serve those whom they really represent, the big business and land interests. Not only are they able to use these positions to kill in committee measures of special interest to the South, such as anti-lynch legislation, but to unite with reactionary groups from other states to hold up national wage and hour legislation, WPA and housing appropriations, etc.

This year, for example, as the Norfolk Journal and Guide put it,

“We have this situation as a result of the self-perpetuating poll tax dynasties ... 17 out of 33 chairmanships in the Senate and 18 out of 48 chairmanships in the House will be filled by men from 13 out of the 48 states. In addition, this minority group of states will furnish the Speaker of the House, the Senate Majority Leader and the leader of the Democratic caucus.”

Men from little more than one-quarter of the states will be chairmen of more than half the Senate committees and more than one-third of the House Committees! The reader of history will be struck immediately by the similarity between the situation existing just before the Civil War, when the South by counting three-fifths of the slaves toward its population was able to wield an undue influence in both houses, and the present situation when the South is getting representation for all the millions of Negro and white farm hands and wage slaves who can’t vote any more than could the Negro slaves of 80 years ago.

Proposed Remedies

Besides taking the issue of the poll tax to the courts, attempts have been made to repeal it by legislation. The attempts have included a bill to prohibit the collection of the tax as a requirement for voting in elections for members of Congress, the Senate and the President of the United States (the Geyer Bill which would end the poll tax for federal elections, but not touch it in state elections), a bill “to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments” that would base representation in Congress from the states on the basis of the total number of votes cast in the last general election, instead of on the population (the Marcantonio bill, which would give the Bourbons the choice of letting the masses vote or having their representation in Congress cut); and bills in the various state legislatures to abolish the poll tax altogether.

All these bills are worthy of support, although it is interesting to observe the extremely varied motives of their sponsors. Geyer, a California Democrat, wants to sweep the southern Democrats out of their prominent and often dominating position in the party and win undisputed control of it for his own wing, gain Negro support for the Democrats in the non-southern states, and perhaps avert explosions which may be brewing among the southern masses. It is unlikely that his proposal will be accepted by Roosevelt when he is today forced to lean so heavily for passage of his war bills on these same southern congressmen who are elected only because of the poll tax and similar measures.

On the other hand, a man like Senator Bilbo of Mississippi, also favors abolition of the poll tax in his state. He is one of the South’s most rabid Negro-baiting demagogues, who has advocated sending all the Negroes back to Africa. He wants to restore the right of the poor white farmers to vote in order to provide the mass base for a continuation in office of fakers like himself who pretend to represent the interests of the southern white farmers against the attacks of Wall Street and Big Business.

While the passage of the Geyer bill or one like it is certainly necessary, it is an illusion to believe that mere adoption of such a measure will to any substantial degree change the situation, especially as regards the Negro.

For, over and above all these legislative and statutory restrictions, stands the open threat of violence and terrorism by the night-riding landlords and their vigilantes. It must be remembered they were able to secure passage of these anti-democratic measures only by terrorizing and intimidating the Negro and confusing the poor white masses, and that they have been able to maintain the present status only by the threat (and use) of the mob, the rope and the torch.

The Negro people will be able to win back their voting and civil rights only when they are prepared to fight and take them. Passage of a poll-tax bill will not be a substitute for such preparations, as can be seen by looking again at the 1940 voting percentages of Florida and North Carolina which abolished the poll tax in recent years.

Negroes got a measure of democracy in the South for the first time after the Civil War through the establishment of a bourgeois dictatorship that protected them for a while against southern reaction. By force and violence and agreement with the Republican capitalists of the North, the southern ruling class recaptured power and destroyed the Negro’s democratic rights. Only by the struggle for establishment of a new dictatorship, this time of the exploited working class aided by the oppressed farmers and sharecroppers will a new period of real democracy be inaugurated in which the Negro will not simply regain his rights but be integrated as an equal in the brotherhood of all the toilers.

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