Organization and Civic Action

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) publicized the issue of civil rights for African Americans and began a coordinated legal campaign to end discrimination at the ballot box. They fought in court to end poll taxes, the white primary, and discriminatory literacy tests.

NCAAP Annual Meeting 1929

Title: NAACP Annual Conference 1929; Source: Frameworks for America's Past

Early Court Victories

The efforts of the NAACP and their allies had mixed results. They won a Supreme Court decision in 1915 (Guinn v. United States) against the grandfather clause Literacy tests were a requirement for voting in Oklahoma, but the Oklahoma Constitution had an exception for voters whose grandfathers had either been eligible to vote prior to January 1, 1866 or were at that time a resident of  "some foreign nation", or were soldiers. The exception was meant to disfranchised Black voters, because most of their grandfathers had been slaves and therefore unable to vote before 1866 in Oklahoma, another in 1927 (Nixon v. Herndon) against the all-white primary in Texas and ultimately the Supreme Court’s landmark decision against all white primaries in Smith v. Allwright in 1944. Although the organization lost the fight on the state and national level to end poll taxes, it had the support of liberals like Eleanor Roosevelt and other allies.

The DCVL and Voter Registration

At the same time, other Black-led organizations were working to promote the vote among African Americans, despite continued discrimination and systematic disenfranchisement.

The Dallas County Voters League (DCVL), founded in the 1920s by African American activists in Alabama, including civil rights activists Amelia and Samuel Boynton, fought to secure voting rights and encourage voter registration. The organization would later play an active role in the civil rights struggle in Selma by launching voter registration campaigns.

Expansion of Rights to Veterans

World War II changed national public opinion about African American suffrage.  As had happened after the Civil War, the public found it hypocritical to deny the vote to men who had risked death in defense of democracy.

The Soldier Voting Act (1942) was the first legislation that guaranteed military members – including African Americans – a vote in presidential and congressional elections during wartime, regardless of registration and poll tax requirements.

Reports about Black veterans being refused voter registration, as well as being beaten and even killed for advocating for their rights, shocked the country and started shifting attitudes more toward sympathy with African Americans after the war.

The NAACP led the charge against this discrimination, letting people know that the “war for freedom will be fought on two fronts: abroad and at home.” As one African American soldier put it, “If I’ve got to die for democracy I might as well die for some of it right here and now.”

National Attention to "Moral Erosion"

Black-led resistance and racial unrest throughout the nation inspired President Harry Truman to convene a National Committee on Civil Rights in 1946. The committee’s report, To Secure These Rights, was blunt and honest. While recognizing the importance of states’ rights, the report asserted that, “the National Government of the United States must take the lead in safeguarding the rights of all Americans.” It called upon Congress to abolish poll taxes and bar discrimination in federal and state elections.

The committee justified its recommendations by pointing out that suffrage limitations were causing a “moral erosion” of the nation, especially in the South. They noted that discrimination hurt the economy. Most importantly, at the beginning of the Cold War Era, they pointed out that the international interests of the United States were put at risk by limitations on democracy at home.

The beginning shift in public sympathy toward African American voting and civil rights - triggered by Black-led organizing, agitation and resistance - as well as concrete victories against discriminatory practices in court, was the basis of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s.