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The NAACP Fights to Protect Voters

An excerpt from the NAACP’s testimony before Congress that includes the challenges Black women faced as they attempted to exercise their constitutionally granted right to vote.

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Summary

Mr. Pickens: The colored people are discriminated against in the Southern States in the matter of voting. We will give you the facts to show some of the direct action of that discrimination. I was born in South Carolina. Mr. Pickens, an employee of the NAACP, is here to testify about the discrimination Black people face when trying to vote in the South.
Not long ago I was down in that State when the women were being registered; I saw colored women discriminated against by the registrars, and 32 of the women have now sworn to affidavits against the registrars for denying them the right of registration. This denial was made not only in violation of the general laws of the United States, but in violation of the laws of South Carolina; Mr. Pickens witnessed Black women facing discrimination when trying to vote. Many were denied the right to register to vote, which was against federal and state law.
for while that law requires that a man (or woman) must be able to read and write and to read parts of the Constitution of the State or of United States, it does not say anything about questions and answers. These people were asked questions from civil and criminal codes, some things that a great many of the lawyers could hardly answer. The Black women had to take a literacy test that was impossible to pass. The test was not in line with legal literacy tests.
They were also discriminated against in the manner of getting registered. I saw colored women standing in line from 8 o’clock in the morning until 8 o’clock at night waiting to be registered, while white people who came along in the afternoon were registered ahead of them. The Black women had to wait on line for hours while white people were able to register at any time.
We can supply the facts in any number of cases like that. This is only one example of many that Mr. Pickens can share.
Mr. Hersey: In what State was that done, in what city or town?


Mr. Pickens: In Columbia, S.C.; and some of these women were teachers in the schools of Columbia, S.C., licensed by the State to teach.

This particular incident took place in South Carolina. Many of the Black women who faced discrimination are teachers who are licensed by the State.
Mr. Bee: Here is what I want to ask you in that connection—that was done in violation of a national law, or it was done in violation of a State law, was it not? Congressman Bee asks if this discrimination breaks federal or state law.
Mr. Pickens: By all means, it was done in violation of State law, as well as national law. Mr. Pickens says it violated both state law and national law.
Mr. Bee: Now, then, what has the Congress of the United States got to do with violation of a State law by election officials? How can we go into the question of violation of State law when the State law gives protection? How do you propose that Congress can go down there and punish guilty officials for violation of a written law of the State? Mr. Bee asks why Congress should listen to complaints about state laws.
Mr. Pickens: I do not think there is any such prohibition written in the State or Federal Constitution or anywhere else, nor is there in common sense anything that would justify that. We are not complaining merely about the law. As I stated in the beginning these laws are written so as to square with the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments; but the administration of the laws by these State officials is a different matter. Mr. Pickens responds that there is no rule that prevents the federal government from using and enforcing common sense. If state laws violate the Constitution of the United States, Congress can and should act. Plus state officials often break the laws they are supposed to be enforcing.

U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on the Census, excerpt from “Statement of Mr. William Pickens, New York City, N.Y.” Hearings before the Committee on the Census. 66th Congress, 3rd Session. December 29, 1920.

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Background

While the Nineteenth Amendment was a tremendous victory for women’s rights, it was also a harbinger of new challenges, particularly for Black women eager to exercise their right to vote. Jim Crow policies and violent and non-violent intimidation had been effective in keeping large numbers of Black men from the polls for decades. Black women now faced similar measures. This was particularly true in the South, where most states had already shown their dislike for women voters with the rejection of ratification. Black women, in the North and the South, faced a range of challenges leading up to and during the election of 1920. Mississippi and Georgia blocked all women voters by closing new voter registration before the amendment was ratified. In Massachusetts, Black women received fake mailings claiming that women who registered would face exorbitant fines. In South Carolina and Virginia, the KKK used terrorist strategies to keep women away from the polls. In Ocoee, Florida, the KKK murdered fifty Black men and women for attempting to vote on Election Day.

Less than two months after Election Day in 1920, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) testified before Congress that the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments were not enough. Black men and women were unable to vote because intimidation on the local level went unchecked.

About the Document

This is a brief excerpt of the NAACP’s two-day testimony before Congress. Three different men participate in this part of the testimony: William Pickens, NAACP field secretary; Ira G. Hersey, Republican representative from Maine; and Carlos Bee, Democratic representative from Texas.

Vocabulary

  • affidavit: An official statement made under oath.
  • codes: Laws or rules.
  • exorbitant: Exceeding the customary amount.
  • Fifteenth Amendment: The constitutional amendment that declared the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude; it was ratified in 1870.
  • Fourteenth Amendment: The constitutional amendment that declared all citizens have equal protection under the law; it was ratified in 1868.
  • harbinger: A warning or sign of things to come.
  • Ku Klux Klan (KKK): A white supremacy group formed by ex-Confederates after the Civil War that terrorized Black citizens and their supporters.
  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP): A civil rights organization that was founded in 1909 and still exists today.
  • Nineteenth Amendment: The constitutional amendment that declared the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of sex; it was ratified in 1920.
  • prohibition: Rule or order to stop someone from taking action.
  • ratification: The process by which an amendment to the federal Constitution is approved or rejected by states.
  • registrar: An official record keeper; in the case of voting, registrars are responsible for registering voters.

Discussion Questions

  • According to William Pickens’s testimony, how did registrars in Columbia, South Carolina, prevent Black women from voting?
  • What additional information does William Pickens provide about these women? Why might he think that is important to include?
  • Representative Carlos Bee questions whether state or federal laws were violated in this instance. Why might he have asked this question?
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Themes

POWER AND POLITICS; ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE; AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP

New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections

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