Evelyn Thomas Butts (1924–1993)

Evelyn Thomas Butts was a civil rights activist and Democratic Party leader from Norfolk who helped overturn Virginia's poll tax. Her lawsuit challenging the tax was combined with a similar action by four Fairfax County residents and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court as Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections (1966). Butts conducted voter registration campaigns and helped establish Concerned Citizens for Political Education. The political organization achieved two key victories late in the 1960s with the election of Joseph A. Jordan as the first black city council member of the twentieth century and the election of William P. Robinson as Norfolk's first African American member of the House of Delegates. By the end of the 1970s Butts was considered one of the region's most important African American political leaders. MORE...

 

Early Years

Butts was born on May 22, 1924, in Norfolk, the daughter of George Washington Thomas, a laborer, and Lottie Cornick Thomas. Her mother died when Thomas was about ten years old, and she lived for several years with an aunt who instilled in her an interest in politics. She dropped out of school in the tenth grade and on September 7, 1941, married Charles Herbert Butts. They had three daughters. Charles Butts served in the army during World War II (1939–1945) and later worked for the Norfolk Naval Air Station. After a wartime injury disabled him, the family was forced to take in other disabled veterans as boarders to supplement the money she earned as a seamstress, and also had to rely from time to time on public assistance.

Butts began taking part in local civil rights activities during the 1950s and emerged as a strong advocate for vigorous measures against official racial segregation. As president of the Oakwood Civic League she helped persuade Norfolk to erect Rosemont Middle School so that children from the neighborhood would not have to ride the bus to a segregated school across town. In 1961 Butts ran for president of the Norfolk chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in opposition to the longtime president, whom she accused of being insufficiently militant. She withdrew from the contest at the last moment after it became clear that she would not be elected. As in all her later political ventures, her fixed opinions and blunt words aroused strong feelings among her supporters and her opponents.

Butts v. Harrison, Governor of Virginia

Butts was one of numerous black voters in Norfolk who participated in politics despite the official barriers to African American voting, one of which was the poll tax. At the end of November 1963 she had the Norfolk attorney Joseph A. Jordan file suit in federal court against Governor Albertis Sydney Harrison and several Norfolk officials, charging that the provisions in the Virginia Constitution of 1902 and related state laws requiring payment of a poll tax as a prerequisite for voter registration violated the U.S. Constitution. Butts's suit asserted that the poll tax placed an undue financial burden on the suffrage and that inasmuch as a larger proportion of African Americans than whites could not afford to pay the poll tax, the measure was an engine of racial discrimination and therefore violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The suit contained other arguments against the poll tax, but that issue was the central one and the one that survived early legal challenges. With the assistance of civil rights lawyers from the District of Columbia and Michigan, Butts pursued her case in forma pauperis all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Butts's suit was the first but not the only one filed against the Virginia poll tax. Republicans challenged the poll tax on a number of other grounds, and in March 1964 Annie E. Harper and three other African American residents of Fairfax County, with legal assistance furnished in part by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed suit against the Virginia State Board of Elections, similarly charging that the poll tax was unconstitutional. The presiding judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit referred Butts's and Harper's cases to the adjudication of a three-judge panel, which dismissed Butts's suit in May 1964 for failure to prosecute the case with due diligence. The next week Butts filed an almost identical suit in the U.S. District Court, but because of this initial setback and because Butts's lawyers had to overcome objections that the office of Virginia's attorney general lodged against her suit, her case reached the judges later than Harper's. The combined cases were therefore heard under the style Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections. The judges heard arguments in Alexandria on October 21, 1964, and on November 12, adhering to precedents that the U.S. Supreme Court had established in the 1930s, upheld the constitutionality of the poll tax.

Harper's attorneys almost immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Butts's lawyers, by contrast, lacked the financial resources of the ACLU and did not file their appeal until later, so the style of the combined action remained unchanged. Before the cases were argued, the attorney general of the United States filed a separate suit against Virginia charging that the poll tax was illegal under the new Voting Rights Act of 1965. Harper's and Butts's cases were argued together on January 24 and 25, 1966. The solicitor general of the United States, Thurgood Marshall, filed a brief amicus curiae and also presented oral arguments against the poll tax. On March 24, 1966, the Supreme Court ruled that the poll tax was unconstitutional, as Butts had originally charged. That decision ended more than sixty years of the use of the poll tax to make it difficult for African Americans and poor people to vote.

Later Years

Butts conducted voter registration campaigns in Norfolk, first in her own Oakwood neighborhood and then citywide, and she helped to found the Concerned Citizens for Political Education, the most influential African American political organization in Norfolk during the 1970s. Through registration drives, political education, endorsements, and working at the polls, the Concerned Citizens in 1968 helped elect Joseph Jordan to Norfolk's city council, its first African American member in the twentieth century, and the following year the citizens' group helped elect William P. Robinson, the first African American ever to represent Norfolk in the House of Delegates. Butts was so influential in local politics that by the end of the 1970s the press regularly referred to her as one of the most powerful black politicians in Norfolk. She ran three times for the city council in her own right but lost in the at-large elections by a narrow margin in 1980, by a larger margin in 1982, and again by a narrow margin in 1984.

During the 1980s the Concerned Citizens lost much of its influence to the biracial Rainbow Coalition, and the largely moribund group ousted Butts from its chairmanship in June 1990. She remained active in Democratic Party politics until late in the 1980s and attended both state and national conventions. Butts served on the board of the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority for twelve years beginning in 1975, and in 1982 the governor appointed her to the State Board of Housing and Community Development. In 1989 the Norfolk and Portsmouth Bar Association presented her with its annual Liberty Bell Award for community service, and she also received a lifetime achievement award from the Hampton Roads Black Media Professionals. In November 1995 the city council renamed Elm Street in her honor. Butts died at her Norfolk home on March 11, 1993, and was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in that city.

Time Line

  • May 22, 1924 - Evelyn Thomas is born in Norfolk to George Washington Thomas and Lottie Cornick Thomas.
  • September 7, 1941 - Evelyn Thomas marries Charles Herbert Butts. They will have three daughters.
  • 1961 - Evelyn Thomas Butts runs for president of the Norfolk chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but withdraws her candidacy when it becomes clear that she will not be elected.
  • November 1963 - Evelyn Thomas Butts, a civil rights activist from Norfolk, files suit in federal court to have the poll tax declared unconstitutional as an undue financial burden on the franchise that violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • March 1964 - Annie E. Harper and three other African American residents of Fairfax County file suit against the Virginia State Board of Elections, charging that the poll tax is unconstitutional.
  • May 1964 - Evelyn Thomas Butts's case charging that the poll tax is unconstitutional is dismissed for failure to prosecute the case with due diligence.
  • October 21, 1964 - The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia hears arguments for Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, which has been consolidated with Butts v. Harrison, Governor of Virginia.
  • November 12, 1964 - The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia decides Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, upholding the constitutionality of the poll tax.
  • January 24–25, 1966 - Annie E. Harper's and Evelyn Thomas Butts's cases charging that the poll tax is unconstitutional are argued together before the U.S. Supreme Court as Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections.
  • March 24, 1966 - In the case of Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the poll tax is unconstitutional.
  • 1975–1987 - Evelyn Thomas Butts serves on the board of the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
  • 1980–1984 - Evelyn Thomas Butts runs three times for the Norfolk city council and loses each time.
  • 1982 - The governor appoints Evelyn Thomas Butts to the State Board of Housing and Community Development.
  • 1989 - The Norfolk and Portsmouth Bar Association presents its annual Liberty Bell Award for community service to Evelyn Thomas Butts. Butts is also awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Hampton Roads Black Media Professionals.
  • March 11, 1993 - Evelyn Thomas Butts dies at her Norfolk home. She is buried in Norfolk's Forest Lawn Cemetery.
  • November 1995 - The Norfolk City Council renames Elm Street in honor of Evelyn Thomas Butts.
Further Reading
Parramore, Thomas C., Peter C. Stewart, and Tommy L. Bogger. Norfolk: The First Four Centuries. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994.
Tarter, Brent. "Butts, Evelyn Thomas." In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 449–450. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
Wallenstein, Peter. Blue Laws and Black Codes: Conflict, Courts, and Change in Twentieth-Century Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Tarter, B., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Evelyn Thomas Butts (1924–1993). (2013, August 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Butts_Evelyn_Thomas_1924-1993.

  • MLA Citation:

    Tarter, Brent and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Evelyn Thomas Butts (1924–1993)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 12 Aug. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: June 17, 2013 | Last modified: August 12, 2013


Contributed by Brent Tarter and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Brent Tarter is founding editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography