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“Our First Poll Tax Drive”: The American G.I. Forum Fights Disenfranchisement of Mexican Americans in Texas

With the annexation of Texas in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War, Tejanos—Texans of Mexican descent—lost property rights and political power in a society dominated by Anglos. Through discriminatory practices and violent force, Tejanos were kept at the bottom of the new political and socio-cultural order. From 1900–1930, as an influx of immigrants from Mexico came north to meet a growing demand for cheap labor in the developing commercial agriculture industries, Tejanos experienced continued discrimination in employment, housing, public facilities, the judicial system, and educational institutions. In addition, Texas joined the other former Confederate states in 1902, legislating a poll tax requirement that, with the implementation of all-white primaries in 1904, effectively disenfranchised African Americans and many Tejano citizens. The struggle of Mexican Americans to end discriminatory practices accelerated following World War II. In 1948, the American G.I. Forum was formed as an advocacy group by Mexican American veterans. In 1949 and 1950, they began local “pay your poll tax” drives to register Tejano voters. Although they failed in repeated efforts to repeal the tax, a 1955–56 drive in the Rio Grande Valley resulted in the first majority Mexican American electorate in the area. In 1960, Viva Kennedy Clubs, administered by the Forum and others, contributed to the future president’s narrow victory in Texas that helped win the national election. Ratification of the 24th Amendment finally abolished the poll tax requirement for Federal elections in 1964. In 1966, the tax was eliminated in all state and local elections by a Supreme Court ruling. In the following interview, Ed Idar, of the Forum, related incidents in the persistent drive by the organization and its leader, Dr. Hector P. Garcia, to increase the number of registered Mexican American voters.

Listen to Audio:

IDAR: To the working people, the ones that had to pick cotton and all that, $1.75 was quite a bit of money. And for two people in a marriage, husband and wife, to come up with $3.50 or what have you, that was money, you know. It was a big hindrance, no question about it. But we did manage to increase the numbers of poll tax buyers.

One of the first things when I was in Austin that I got involved with locally, local politics, was conducting a local poll tax drive there. And being a little better, a little more able to figure things out . . . the first thing I did was go to the county office, county clerk, and get a copy of the poll tax list two years earlier. And I counted the Spanish names there. I don’t know, I don’t remember how many there was, but several thousand names on that list. There was only a couple of hundred that were Spanish names.

So we conducted our first poll tax drive. By the end of that drive, we had about a thousand that had raised or paid their poll taxes. So it was an effort, and we conducted rallies. Dr. Garcia used to have a radio program in Corpus [Christi] where he would encourage people to buy the poll taxes. Others of us, we would put out leaflets and go house to house. Our people would go house to house.

We also tried to get poll tax deputies named by the tax assessor-collector. In some cases we had problems. They would name you a poll tax deputy, but he had to be working in the courthouse. What good would that do us? We wanted them working out in the neighborhoods. We did prevail. I did prevail in Austin. We got two or three deputies to work in the Mexican-American neighborhoods. Because it was easier to get the people to buy the poll tax there then to come downtown to the courthouse and buy it there. And in a number of counties, that’s what happened. We got people to be named poll tax deputies by the county clerks or what have you.

INTERVIEWER (Maggie Rivas Rodriguez): Was the poll tax a one time charge or was it. . .

IDAR: You had to buy it every year by January 31st. If you didn’t buy your poll tax by January 31st, you couldn’t vote the rest of that year.

Source: Oral History courtesy of U.S. Latinos & Latinas and World War II Oral History Project, University of Texas, Austin. Interview with Ed Idar, organizer/volunteer for the American G.I. Forum and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, December 2, 2000, in San Antonio, Texas, by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez.