Roosevelt Williams, who was born in 1912 and lived in Mississippi, was interviewed in the 1990s about living in the segregated South. In this excerpt of the interview, Roosevelt describes voting in Alabama in the 1930s and 1940s.
ORTIZ (INTERVIEWER): Were you involved or did you follow the politics of the day— Roosevelt, New Deal? Were you voting at that time?
R. WILLIAMS: I started voting way back. I’ll tell you, at that time, you know, they had such strict laws. You had what they called poll tax, and you had to pay poll tax. I even paid poll tax. And you had to pass the board of examiners. They asked you all kind of strict questions and everything. But I was determined to vote, and I kept on until I got to be a voter. As I said, I had to pay poll tax for so many years. Then they cut out the poll tax.
ORTIZ: Did you start trying to vote in Birmingham?
R. WILLIAMS: Yeah, in Birmingham [in the early 1940s] I started. I didn’t even make no attempt down in there, because, I don’t know, I don’t think they had no black voting down in Pickens County [in the 1930s]. That was out of the question.
ORTIZ: Did anybody ever try?
R. WILLIAMS: I don’t know. I don’t think it was open for black, as far as I know, then. After I come here to Birmingham, it was rough then. They didn’t have but just a few black voters here, and as I said, you had a tough time trying to pass the vote or register.
ORTIZ: What kind of experience was that? What did you have to go through?
R. WILLIAMS: Well, see, you’d go before the examiner. They asked you all kind of questions about the Constitution of the United States, things they know you didn’t know. They’d ask you all those silly questions, and if you couldn’t answer them all, well, you were turned down.
Now, what we did, we had a voting rights school we’d go to, and they would teach us lots of them things that they might would ask, you know. We had it set up at our church. We’d have people coming in there and trying to learn them, train them to answer these questions. So we got quite a few voters qualified through that.1
This reading is also avaiable as printable handout 4.16 in our Teaching Mockingbird resource.
- 1 Roosevelt Williams, interview by Paul Ortiz, June 24, 1993, “Roosevelt Williams interview,” Behind the Veil, Duke University Digital Collections, accessed May 6, 2014, Duke University Libraries Digital Collections