Mexican Americans and the Poll Tax

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NBC News
Edwin Newman/Tom Pettit
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NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
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Even though Mexican-Americans in 1965 constitute more than 75% of the population in some south Texas counties, poll taxes and literacy tests are effective at keeping many members of this ethnic group from voting. NBC's Tom Pettit looks at the untapped political power of Mexican-Americans.



"Mexican Americans and the Poll Tax." Tom Pettit, correspondent. NBC News. NBCUniversal Media. 1 Jan. 1965. NBC Learn. Web. 30 January 2015.


Pettit, T. (Reporter), & Newman, E. (Anchor). (1965, January 1). Mexican Americans and the Poll Tax. [Television series episode]. NBC News. Retrieved from


"Mexican Americans and the Poll Tax" NBC News, New York, NY: NBC Universal, 1965. Accessed Fri Jan 30 2015 from NBC Learn:


Mexican Americans and the Poll Tax


No social question such as the one "who can vote" has a simple answer. The roots of the answer are buried deep in local prejudices and the very complexity of prejudice itself leads to voting discrimination against ethnic groups other than Negros. We have three reports starting with NBC’s Tom Pettit in Texas.

TOM PETTIT reporting:

Mexican Americans of the Southwest have not had the militancy of the Negro civil rights movement. Caught between two cultures the Mexican American has been slow to demand full political rights and has been slow to get them. Here in Texas, where nearly one and a half million Mexican Americans live, there is a diversity of opinion about the subject of their rights.

Unidentified Man: I don’t believe in paying for a poll tax. If I thought that, if I knew that all the states were paying for poll taxes I wouldn’t mind very much, you know, paying for a poll tax to vote, but being that Texas is just one of the few, I believe everyone should have a right to vote. When they start charging a poll tax, I believe they are taking that right away.

Mr. CHARLES DAVIS (Bexar County Tax Collector): I don’t see any evidence of any discrimination against the Mexican people in San Antonio. I know they used to have quite a bit of discrimination. They were taken advantage of because they were, well you might say there was a larger percentage of them that were not educated.

Mr. ALBERT PENA (Bexar County Commissioner): We have the dubious distinction of having the highest illiteracy rate of any minority or racial group in the Untied States. The average Mexican American child repeats the first grade three years and doesn’t go beyond the fourth grade.

PETTIT: The Mexican American long has supplied limitless cheap labor in south Texas. One expert said that for a long time the Mexican American had no thought of political participation because he had no expectation of help from the people who held both political and economic power. And because he spoke only Spanish, or perhaps a little English, the Mexican American was regarded as a foreigner by the Anglo or white community. This is changing as education improves. Still, less than half of the adults in Texas have gone beyond the fifth grade. There is a cycle of ignorance and poverty that contributes to political apathy.

The average Mexican American family income in Texas is $1,000 a year less than the average Anglo family earns. This is Fred Valdez who thinks he made $1800 last year. He has a sixth grade education but has never voted. He doesn’t know how to pay his poll tax. PASO, the Political Association of Spanish Speaking Organizations, estimates that only a quarter of Mexican Americans in Texas have paid the tax. PASO president Albert Pena, Bexar County commissioner and leading Mexican American politician:

Mr. PENA: Well there’s no question why the poll tax was initiated in the first place, and that was to keep the minorities from voting. And, for example, last year the tax collector here in Bexar County did everything he possibly could to put blocks in full tax bind.

PETTIT: Pena’s complaint is that a newly installed computer system for sending out poll tax notices by mail to people already on the voting rolls discriminates against PASO’s effort to recruit new voters, especially the illiterate. Here is Bexar county tax collector Charles Davis of San Antonio.

Mr. DAVIS: I think if literacy test was required of some kind to enable you to vote, then I don’t think this method would disqualify anyone who could pass a literacy test. Some few of Latin American leaders like to keep the Latin Americans thinking that they are downtrodden, and I think they feel like they are downtrodden, they feel like they can keep more control of them.

Mr. PENA: I think that politicians understand only one thing and that is votes. I believe that this is the only way that they are going to gain sympathy from people who are elected. This is the only way that public officials are going to reflect what the people need, and are going to think about it and are going to do something about it or they are going to be defeated next time.

PETTIT. If mobilized, the Mexican Americans who constitute more than 75% of the population in some counties, could control the outcome of virtually every city election in south Texas. This is Tom Pettit, NBC News.