Poll Tax

On the Bayou . . . November 1952

by Bonnie Chaney Cooper, PhD

Poll Tax Freeze-Out

     After breakfast and straightening  up in the kitchen, Nora Rose went to the bedroom to change into her Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes. It was election day and she was eager to vote for her favorite General, Dwight D. Eisenhower.                                                                         Nora had five sons who served in World War II. She gave a great deal of credit to GeneralEisenhower for getting all her boys home safely. During the war years, she hung a service flag in her window. It was more like a white banner, bordered in red with a gold fringe at the bottom. In the middle was a blue star signifying an immediate family member serving in the military. The blue star flags were designed and first used for families of servicemen serving in WWI. They became very popular during WWII. Nora never had more than three sons serving in the military at one time, (nor more than three stars on her flag). More importantly, she never had to replace a blue star with a gold one which signified that a son had died in the service of his country.

   Near the end of the war, a convoy of German prisoners passed their home daily on the Stuttgart Highway. They were being moved from the Army-Air base in Stuttgart to different farms to work as day labor. Nora would sit on her front porch shelling peas or snapping beans. “Bet you think you got one of mine, but you didn’t,” she’d speak out loud towards the passing convoy. For this, and for everyday that she didn’t have to sew a gold star over the blue one on her Son’s in Service Flag, she gave thanks to God and to the General.

   Her husband, Tom, appeared to be as dedicated to General Eisenhower as Nora, that is until the day Eisenhower chose which ticket he was going to run on. Both the Democrats and the Republicans wanted to have General Eisenhower head-up their ticket for president. All Tom’s life he was a ‘yeller’dog Democrat; a loyal Southern Democrat who would vote for any candidate who was a Democrat, even if it was an old yellow dog. He and his wife had many an argument over the upcoming election. Nora wore an “I like Ike” button, but she had no success at convincing her husband to cross over party lines and vote for Ike. When Tom came in from feeding the animals that election morning, he stepped lively because it was election day. In 1952, voting was a special day. It was a day to put on one’s Sunday best and meet friends at the voting polls. Tom was on his way to put on his suit and tie when Nora emerged from the bedroom looking as if she was going to a wedding. She wore a hat and gloves that matched her coat and high-heeled shoes.

“Where do you think you are going?,” he asked matter-of-factly.

“To vote,” she answered with a smile, thinking he was joking with her.

“Where is your poll tax ticket?”

“Didn’t you buy me one?” she inquired. Nora didn’t drive. Tom had always taken care of that sort of thing in the past for the both of them. The poll tax was only $2.00.

“I couldn’t buy a poll tax for anyone who was going to vote for Ike.”

   It was cold in northeast Coy this early November day. However, it became a lot colder a the Rose household. Their younger son, J. T. cannot recollect a family argument worse than this one, nor one that lasted longer. All his mother would say to his father for days was, “I told you so.” To Nora, Ike’s winning verified that the way she wanted to vote was indeed the right way. As a matter of fact, for the next eight years she repeatedly informed him, “I told you so!”

   President Eisenhower was re-elected serving as president from 1953 to 1961. Nora had her poll tax receipt for every election thereafter.

   As for the poll tax itself – The Supreme Court ruled that a poll tax was a violation of the 15h Amendment and a method to disenfranchise poor whites and blacks from voting. Perhaps the honorable judges got wind of  Nora’s poll-tax freeze out. In 1964, the 24th amendment was passed that outlawed poll taxes for voting in Federal elections. The last southern states to remove the poll tax as a prerequisite to voting locally were Texas, Alabama, Virginia, followed in 1966 by Mississippi.

   The first poll tax was levied by John of Gaunt in 1377 to raise money for the English to fight the war against France. The price was one shilling, which was a lot in the 14th century. The English word “Poll” originally meant “Head,” as in per-person. The word “poll” became commonly used as a fixed tax applied to voting – thus six centuries later we go to the polls to vote.

   Our thanks to J. T. Rose for sharing a window into an election day with his parents. He is the only remaining sibling in his family. J. T. owned nursing homes in north Arkansas. He is retired, lives in Rogers, and has upon occasion worn a yellow dog button.


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