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Ria Stone

Poll Tax Issue Concerns Every Worker

Labor Unions Are Putting Pressure on Congressmen
to Bring the Geyer Bill on the Floor

(September 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 36, 7 September 1942, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There, are today 5,000,000 men in the armed forces. By next year, this number will be increased to eight million – a very substantial portion of the adult voting population of the United States

These men are presumably fighting for democracy. Yet the proposal to grant them the elementary democratic right of voting is being kicked around like a political football in Washington because the ruling class is opposed to suspending the poll-tax restriction for service men from the eight poll-tax states. (It has since been, approved by Senate-House conferees, and will probably pass. However, Southern congressmen have announced they will fight it to the last: ditch. – Editor)

It is significant that it is not only the reactionary Southern congressmen who have opposed such a waiver. Senator Barkley – Roosevelt’s majority leader in the upper house – led the Senate opposition to lifting the poll-tax restriction. And after Barkley’s opposition had failed to kill the measure, Vice-President Wallace, in appointing a committee of five Senate conferees to discuss the matter with the House, made sure that three of these conferees were active opponents of the waiver.

The entire ruling class trembles at the thought of suspending, the poll-tax: for military men from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia because it knows that such a gesture in the direction, of democracy “for the duration” may produce ramifications in the post-war period. Soldiers permitted to vote by a poll-tax waiver will not passively accept disfranchisement again when they have exchanged khaki for overalls. The fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers of these soldiers will also begin insisting on their right to vote and with this insistence may come a radical change in the whole iniquitous system of the South which has kept millions in degradation.

Anti-poll-tax agitation has been carried out mainly in the name of democratic rights for Negroes, but actually, more whites than Negroes are robbed of the right to vote by the poll-tax. The poll-tax hits at all who don’t have an extra dollar or two left over from rent, food and clothing to spare for the right to vote.

Through the technique of the poll-tax, ten million “have-nots” in the South are deprived of any say at all in the government, while a few thousand have an unfettered hand in exploiting them. In the Southern states this means that the Southern, rulers can keep at a minimum all educational appropriations, public works, social legislation and all measures; of a progressive; nature.

The South on the whole remains, therefore, deep and dark, almost like a vast colonial country where little, if anything, is done to extend the benefits of improved technology to the masses.

To the South come the Northern capitalists, to invest in the mines, mills and factories. Like the imperialists in Africa and Asia, these capitalists are assured by their Southern partners of a continual supply of “cheap labor,” ignorant and illiterate, backward and degraded.

Fear Labor Movement

However, the very industrialization of the South is creating a proletariat, which will no longer countenance the vested interests and machine rule of a few. The Southern oligarchy is aware that from this proletariat is developing a labor movement which will not only abolish the poll-tax but will make serious inroads on the whole economy of which the poll-tax is only a symptom. Alabama, particularly, with its mines and factories, is swiftly becoming organized and constitutes a fertile field for socialist education (as the New York Post recently pointed out.)

It is this rising militancy of the Southern workers, Negro and white, which causes the Southern bourbons to try more desperately to maintain their rule by lynch law, rabble-rousing race agitation and local repressive measures of a viciousness rivalled only by British imperialism in the colonies and German fascism in Europe.

In Alabama, Horace Wilkinson’s “League to Maintain White Supremacy” is but another aspect of his notorious anti-union and anti-labor activities: The “new Negro,” whom the Southern tories fear so much, is the Negro who, working alongside of his white fellow workers, has learned that together the workers must fight militantly and aggressively for their rights and for their class as a whole.

Meanwhile, in the North, the progress made by organized labor is continually menaced by the possibility and actuality of capital flowing to the South, where the restrictive legislation against labor by poll-tax politicians means that it is easier to set up scab shops. Moreover, nationally, the poll-tax congressmen continually endeavor to keep American “democracy” as a whole retarded to the political level of the Southern states. The Southern oligarchy, with its poll-tax, is so strongly entrenched in the South that it can demand and receive from the national government special appropriations, preferments and political favors, completely out of proportion to its actual voting strength.

Anti-lynch laws and national laws against discrimination remain virtual fantasies while the poll-tax congressmen can control national elections by a solid bloc.

One after another, the Southern poll tax representatives, for example, Howard Smith of Virginia and Senator Rankin of Mississippi, storm through the chambers of Congress yelling for anti-labor legislation and exploding with invectives against Negroes. And let it not be thought that these men are only isolated fanatics. For the poll-tax states elect 76 representatives to Congress – no inconsiderable number when it is realized that they form a solid anti-Negro and anti-labor bloc. Nor is it any accident that anti-labor and anti-Negro invectives flow with equal vehemence from the mouths of these men.

For the rotten Southern economy must make a desperate effort to, survive by keeping the growing labor movement in bounds. And this can best be done, from the point of view of the Southern ruling class, by keeping the Negro in his place and, dividing him from his white fellow workers by constantly nourished race hatred.

Anti-Poll-Tax Movement

Today, more and. more, as shown by the AFL and CIO anti-poll-tax resolutions, labor unions are beginning to realize the menace to labor in continued rule by poll-tax state and national “representatives.” It is largely the pressure of labor unions which has persuaded various congressmen to sign a petition to bring the Geyer anti-poll-tax resolution onto the floor of the House. Only a few more signatures are needed.

The “liberals” have always deplored the poll-tax because they were ashamed of its persistence to “free America.” The movement to end the poll-tax is now taking on. real strength because (as the Anti-Poll-Tax Committee reports) labor has waked up to the fact that the poll-tax guarantees political monopoly by those who seek to keep the working class movement devitalized through race antagonisms and restrictive legislation.

To make of this movement a real force, the unions must accompany their anti-poll-tax resolutions and lobbying with intensive organizational drives in the South. Only in this way will the Southern workers themselves develop the organizations and the leadership which will overthrow the poll-tax system and all its accompanying abuses.

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