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Daughter Keeps Late Mother's Legacy of Civil Rights Alive

Book Talk & Signing

Post Date:02/19/2020 3:24 PM

NORFOLK, VA – In partnership with Norfolk State University (NSU), the Norfolk Public Library (NPL) is honored to host Charlene Butts Ligon for Women’s History Month on Tuesday, March 24 at noon at the Lyman Beecher Brooks Library Rotunda. Ligon will discuss her book FEARLESS: How a poor Virginia seamstress took on Jim Crow, beat the poll tax and changed her city forever.

The book tells the courageous story of Ligon’s mother, Evelyn Thomas Butts (1924-1993), a poor seamstress and wife of a disabled World War II Army veteran from Norfolk, Virginia.  Butts became a powerful civil rights activist and voting rights champion.  In 1963, she filed a lawsuit with her attorney Joseph A. Jordan Jr., to challenge Virginia’s poll tax.  Her lawsuit was combined with a similar lawsuit from several individuals in Fairfax County, Virginia, and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court as Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections (1966).

Poll taxes emerged as part of a package of laws throughout the post-Reconstruction South in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and were used as a technique by white Southern politicians to bypass the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which secured liberties for African Americans and guaranteed them the right to vote.

Any person who wished to register to vote had to pay a poll tax of $1.50 every year for three years preceding an election. Consequently, most blacks were denied the right to vote, but also many poor whites became disenfranchised as well because they could not afford to pay the poll tax. In 1964, the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed poll taxes as a prerequisite for voting in federal elections, but five states retained the poll tax: Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas and Virginia.

On March 24, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that poll taxes were an unconstitutional violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that “Voter qualifications have no relation to wealth nor to paying or not paying this or any other tax.” After the ruling, Butts stepped up her efforts by helping thousands of African Americans register to vote for the first time. She also spearheaded a variety of voter-education initiatives and helped found the Concerned Citizens for Political Education, the most influential African American political organization in Norfolk during the 1970s. By the end of the 1970s Butts was considered one of the region’s most important African American political leaders.


FEARLESS is a story about having the courage to speak your mind and act. The book includes a foreword by Kenneth Cooper Alexander, Ph.D., the first African American to be elected mayor of Norfolk. In his foreword for the book, he writes of Evelyn Butts, "What she accomplished as a voting rights champion truly spans the generations and deserves our continued recognition.”

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