Evelyn Thomas Butts was an African American civil rights activist and politician in Virginia. She is best known for challenging the poll tax and took her case before the United States Supreme Court.
Butts was born May 22, 1924, in Norfolk, Virginia to Lottie Cornick Thomas. When she was ten years old, her mother died, leaving her to be adopted and raised by a politically active aunt.
In 1941, she married and her husband served in World War II. She worked as a seamstress and the family took in boarders to help with income.
During the 1950s, Butts got involved in Civil Rights. She helped create a middle school in her neighborhood so that the children would not have to ride the bus to a segregated school. In 1960, Butts was involved in picketing the Be-Lo Supermarket for not employing black people in higher-level positions. She also protested against black people being told to sit in certain parts of the football stadium.
In 1963, Butts hired a lawyer, Joseph A. Jordan Jr., to help her sue the state of Virginia for requiring the poll tax, filing in November of 1963. Butts’ case was that the tax was unconstitutional since it imposed an “undue financial burden” that violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Butt’s first case in March 1964 was dismissed, but Butts filed another case and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the tax. She appealed the case and the United States Supreme Court decided to hear the appeal in October 1965. Her case was combined with a similar case which had been filed by Annie E. Harper, which reached the Supreme Court first. The case, Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, was decided in March of 1966, making poll taxes unconstitutional. After the ruling, Butts spent her time registering black voters throughout Norfolk. Butts died on March 11, 1993.
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