This post is part of “Humanities in American Life,” an initiative to increase awareness of the importance and use of the humanities in everyday American life.
‘Every Beat Will Fight for Me’: Black Alabamians and the Vote
by Sydney Boyd, project manager, Humanities in American Life
In 1946, Alabamians voted to approve the Boswell Amendment—a law that required citizens to explain a section of the Constitution to the satisfaction of the registrar before they could be registered to vote. With no clear guidelines, it meant that each registrar could effectively choose who got to vote.
Purposefully vague, the Boswell Amendment was “a blatant, overt form of voter suppression,” as Scotty E. Kirkland said in a Alabama Humanities Alliance (AHA) Facebook Live event on January 19 titled “Why it Matters: Black Alabamians and the Vote: Operation Suffrage in Post-War Alabama.” Tonya Scott Williams hosted the conversation about the Boswell Amendment with poet Ashley M. Jones and Kirkland, who is the exhibitions, publications, and programs coordinator for the Alabama Department of Archives and History. The event was the third in AHA’s six-part “Why It Matters” virtual program and podcast series, funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils.
The Boswell Amendment was a reaction to Smith v. Allwright, a 1944 Supreme Court case on the heels of the Second World War that overturned a Texas state law authorizing parties to set their own internal rules, like white primaries—essentially, it was about racial desegregation around voting rights.
“The Democratic Party’s primary was basically an elite social club, so they could dictate that if you came to the polls to register, and you were not white, that you could not register as a Democrat, that the Democratic Party was exclusively for whites only” Kirkland said. “So in April of 1944, the (Smith case) wipes out white primaries, and what that does is it opens up for the first time a possibility that in a state like Alabama, bigger portions of African Americans voters who register can register in the Democratic party.”
Two key things happen in Alabama next, Kirkland explained. The Smith case exposed a flaw in the rigid voter suppression that had been in place—four rules in the 1901 Constitution that, up until 1944, made certain African Americans and many poor whites could not register to vote: a literacy test, a two-year residency requirement, a cumulative poll tax, and a requirement to own at least $300 of real property.
“If Black voters paid their poll tax, if they found two people that would vouch for their character, if they could pass their literacy test, and if they had a vehicle…because of the Smith decision, they could vote,” Kirkland said. “And Alabama said, ‘We have to find a way to get around this.’”
So Gessner T. McCorvey, chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee and an attorney in Mobile at the time, got together with some other attorneys in the state and crafted an “understanding” clause that became the Boswell Amendment.
“It invests all the power in those local registrars,” Kirkland said.
There was no immediate protection to keep the Boswell Amendment from becoming law, but a vigorous campaign rose up against it led by the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Federation of Labor. And in 1949, after plaintiffs filed a suit in federal court, a judicial panel declared the Boswell Amendment unconstitutional.
Scott Williams said that much of what happened in 1940s Alabama mirrors our present moment when it comes to voter suppression tactics that, rather than disappearing, have simply evolved.
“If we look where we are in our current landscape, it seems that we have some forces that want to go backwards, they want to turn the hands back to those ‘better days’ …it all depends on who you’re talking about when you say ‘better days’” Scott Williams said.
Although voting suppression today may not be as overt as the Boswell Amendment, it still persists, Kirkland said—anything that makes voting harder, that makes it take longer, or that adds a step to it can be seen as voter suppression.
In closing, Jones recited one of her poems, “Red-lining,” about how voting suppression seeps into all parts of life.
“Can you hear my skin before you see it? Can you hear the rap I’m blasting down your perfect street? Here, take it. Every beat will fight for me.”