In 1964, the 24th Amendment outlawed the poll tax in federal elections but four states retained the restriction—Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia. The year prior, Annie E. Harper was among a group of Fairfax residents who filed suit challenging the Commonwealth’s $1.50 poll tax assessed as a condition of participation in the electoral process.
Literacy tests and poll taxes as conditions for voting were a prominent feature of the post-Civil War Jim Crow laws. A constitutional convention in Virginia in June 1902 produced a governing document littered with such proscriptions. The participants, all white males, were not shy about the purpose of these requirements:
Discrimination! Why that is precisely what we propose; that exactly, is what this convention was elected for.
–Carter Glass, delegate to Virginia’s 1902 Constitutional Convention and later, U.S. Senator from the Commonwealth, 1920–1946.
The stated purpose of the 1902 Jim Crow laws in limiting the participation of African-Americans in the electoral process was successful; these laws also reduced voting by poor whites and Republicans, along with removing thousands of African-Americans from the voting rolls.
For over 60 years, Virginia’s poll tax prevailed; on March 24, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the provision in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections. Justice William O. Douglas, writing for the 6-3 majority, held, in part, that
… a state violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution whenever it makes the affluence of the voter or payment of any fee an electoral standard. Voter qualifications have no relation to affluence.
More recently, in the past several years, some states have enacted voter identification laws as defenses against impersonation at the polls. Critics allege that these efforts are the equivalent in some respects of poll taxes because they impose latent costs upon some voters least able to afford them, e.g., travel to state DMV offices and producing original documentation such as birth certificates. While seemingly neutral on their face, these voter ID laws have not been demonstrated to address an actual problem of impersonation at the polls. In fact, available evidence indicates that such fraud is virtually nonexistent. The traces of the Jim Crow laws, like a palimpsest,¹ show through, reviving a deplorable history of voter suppression, artificial barriers, and disenfranchisement while creating a new relationship to affluence as a barrier to voting.
But history not only tends to repeat itself directly, it may also involve threads—connections among people, events, and ideas that, like a gauzy film, are woven among one another, often undetectable. The dissent in Harper was authored by Justice John Marshal Harlan II, grandson of John Marshall Harlan. The elder Harlan was the lone dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson , which gifted the nation with the doctrine of “separate but equal” that survived to 1954 until Brown v. Board of Education. Before joining the Supreme Court, Harlan II had a well-respected career in New York City, where he served in public prosecutorial positions and with a highly visible law firm. There, he provided legal counsel to the Pioneer Fund, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting research in and principles of human breeding. Harlan served on Pioneer’s board of directors along with Harry Laughlin, who later headed a eugenics operation at New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, now a world-renowned research facility.
Laughlin developed a model statute for states to use to implement sterilization procedures to prevent individuals declared “unfit” from child-bearing. He testified at trial in a Virginia case challenging the Commonwealth’s 1924 Eugenical Sterilization Act, later upheld by the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell . The model statute was utilized by Adolph Hitler for implementation in Germany. The Virginia law was repealed in 1979 and the General Assembly adopted a resolution of apology in 2001; in 2015, it authorized compensation for surviving individuals.
The Pioneer Fund provided financial support to, among others, the New Century Foundation, which sponsors an active website and journal called American Renaissance, with headquarters in Oakton, Virginia; it remains vibrant today, enjoying its own renaissance as a white-identity advocate. Both the Pioneer Fund and The New Century Foundation/American Renaissance have been characterized as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Even if history does not repeat itself, it often incubates pernicious forces that, like “superbugs” resistant to antibiotics, persist despite increasingly high doses of condemnation. And many of these alarmingly pernicious forces thrive right here in Fairfax County.
¹Something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.