The Boswell Amendment was introduced in response to the Supreme Court’s 1944 ruling in Smith v. Allwright, which outlawed the common practice of holding “white’s only” primaries in southern states and opened the door for the widespread registration by African Americans.
After the Smith decision, conservative Alabama Democrats mounted a vigorous campaign to circumvent the ruling. Former governor Frank M. Dixon and Gessner T. McCorvey, chair of the state’s Democratic Executive Committee, crafted a constitutional amendment requiring potential voters to “understand and explain” any section of the U.S. Constitution to the satisfaction of a county registrar before being allowed to register. If the person’s answer did not satisfy the registrar, then the application was denied. Local registrars were given wide discretionary powers with the express purpose of using them to refuse the applications of blacks, and some poor whites, without violating the recent Smith decision.
The Boswell Amendment and similar policies were designed to disenfranchise black citizens and limit black political power. These violations of constitutional rights shaped the everyday life chances for black people and communities. The black press sought to inform readers about, and rally opposition against, the Boswell Amendment. In September 1947, the Norfolk Journal and Guide noted that the “Boswell Amendment demands far more than the passing interest of American citizens in every part of the country who are conscious of the indispensable value of their civil liberties. For indeed, the outcome of the planned court test of the validity of the amendment may further point to the vulnerability or invulnerability of democracy itself. This amendment, frankly designed to prevent Negroes from voting in Alabama...will prove to be the precipice from which colored Americans in the South will be pushed back fifty years in their righteous aspirations for the attainment of full citizenship.” When a federal court found the Boswell Amendment unconstitutional in 1949, the Baltimore Afro-American hoped that the decision would knock “the last prop from under the Southern diehards who have sought to keep voting a lily-white privilege in the South.” The Los Angeles Sentinel celebrated the “death knell of the ‘constitutional interpretation’ racket that is used so widely in the South to prevent Negroes from voting.” The Sentinel continued, “These laws require a registrant to ‘interpret’ the constitution to the satisfaction of the local registrar of voters who is the sole judge of the efficacy of the answer. These registrars have been known to find a Negro PHD lacking in constitutional knowledge on the one hand and to find perfect satisfaction with the answer of white illiterates on the other.”
While the Boswell Amendment fell in 1949, it was another sixteen years before the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. Fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, voting rights violations continue to be an issue in the United States.