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Daughter keeps Evelyn Butts’ civil rights legacy alive with March 24 book talk and signing

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

The date is the 54th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court striking down poll taxes for state and local elections on March 24, 1966, a case that began when Butts filed a lawsuit in 1963 with her attorney, Norfolk’s Joseph A. Jordan Jr.

The book tells the courageous story of Butts (1924-1993), the wife of a disabled World War II Army veteran and mother of three children who became a powerful civil rights activist and voting rights champion. Butts’ 1963 lawsuit eventually was combined with a similar complaint 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 by white Southern politicians to bypass the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which secured civil liberties and voting rights for African Americans.

Under Virginia’s poll tax, 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 many poor whites became disenfranchised as well because they, too, could not afford the levy. In 1964, the 24th Amendment to the Constitution outlawed poll taxes as a prerequisite for voting in federal elections, but five states retained taxes for state and local elections: 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 14th 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 voter-participation efforts by helping thousands of African Americans register to vote for the first time. She also spearheaded a variety of voter-education and voter-turnout 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 Mayor Kenneth Cooper Alexander, Ph.D., the first African American to be elected mayor of Norfolk. Alexander writes of Evelyn Butts, “What she accomplished as a voting rights champion truly spans the generations and deserves our continued recognition.”

About Norfolk Public Library:

The Norfolk Public Library offers access to information, books, programs and online resources to meet the needs of our diverse community for lifelong learning. The library system consists of one main library, 10 branch libraries, two anchor branch libraries and a bookmobile. All programs are FREE of charge. Visit or call us at (757) 664-READ for more information. NPL- Creating a City of Readers.

About Norfolk State University:

Norfolk State University (NSU) is a comprehensive urban public university committed to offering rigorous academic programs and a supportive culturally diverse learning environment. As one of the most affordable four-year public institutions of higher education in Virginia, NSU provides opportunity and access to a globally competitive education, preparing students to compete in the 21st century workforce. Our nationally, and internationally, recognized faculty utilize a student-centered teaching philosophy that correlates to student success in unique areas of study such as Cybersecurity, CyberPsychology, Deep Space Exploration, Entrepreneurship and a nationally acclaimed Theatre/Drama program.