Political Changes in Terrible Terrell
By Betty Chaney
Vol. 2, No. 7, 1980, pp. 7-10
On a winter’s day in January 1980, Dawson, Georgia, internationally known for the racially inflamed “Dawson Five” murder trial of three years ago, quietly eased itself into the pages of history again. For this small, predominately Black, southwestern Georgia town, the county seat for “Terrible Terrell” County, making history is not something new. Back in 1960 it became the first jurisdiction to be sued by the Justice Department under the 1957 Civil Rights Act for discrimination in voter registration. This time, however, unlike much of its past history when Black men lined up against White to do battle, three Black men stood alongside three White men and were sworn in together as Dawson City Council members.
The victories for the Black men, Robert Albritten, Abraham Breedlove and Lucius Holloway, did not come easy. In fact they were the culmination of a long and fierce struggle. Terrell County was not nicknamed “terrible” because it rhymed; it had one of the worst records of race repression and violence in the South. Headlines about bombing and shooting of Black homes, the burning of Black churches, and even the murder of Blacks by Whites were not uncommon in Terrell County.
The September 13, 1962, issue of The Dawson Times carried the following account:
—Two Negro churches, about a mile apart as the crow flies, were destroyed by fire at practically the same time early last Sunday morning.
—One of the churches—Mt. Olive at Sasser—had been employed recently for weekly Negro voter-registration meetings.
—The other—Mt. Mary at Chickasawhatchee—reportedly had been intermittently used for that purpose.
On December 12, 1963 the paper carried another report:
—Officers this week extended their investigation beyond the boundaries of Terrell County into the bombing and shooting into of two Negro homes in Dawson early Sunday morning.
The home of Carolyn Daniels, Negro woman who was spear-heading the Negro registration drive locally, was extensively damaged by a bomb and the nearby home of Willie Eston, Negro, was riddled with at least 50 gun shots.”
Davey Gibson, whose family has been in Terrell for decades, recalled that on more than one occasion Black men held for
various offenses were beaten after being released from jail, One man, he said, died after a number of days following such a beating. Gibson, one of the plaintiffs in the historic Justice Department suit against the Terrell County Board of Registrars, was himself the victim of another common form of repression. When he and four other college-educated Blacks were denied the right to register to vote because they allegedly could not read, they filed a suit against the county voter registrars and in reprisal the four teachers were not rehired.
The court in that case found evidence of discrimination against Black persons attempting to register and placed the Terrell County Board of Registrars under permanent injunction.
Then in 1968, the Terrell County Grand Jury Commissioners were placed under a permanent injunction by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals after it found that Blacks had been discriminated against in the selection of persons for grand and traverse jury service.
Still another permanent injunction was issued against Terrell. This time it was against the board of education whose dual school system was not dismantled until the 1970-71 school year.
Following these injunctions, three voting rights suits, involving the method of selecting the Terrell County Board of Education, the Board of Commissioners, and the Dawson City Council were all successfully challenged. The plaintiffs maintained that the county’s pervasive history of racial discrimination continued to have a present day effect and that at-large elections were being used to perpetuate the exclusion of Blacks from the political process.
The Court directed that the method of selecting the board of education members be returned to appointment by the grand jury. This resulted in two Black persons being appointed, becoming the first Blacks to hold countywide office in Terrell County since the Reconstruction era.
The election of the three Black city council members marked the first time ever that a Black person had been elected to the Council. Both Holloway and Albritten had run for the post, at-large, on three separate occasions. Their victories were the direct result of the court-ordered reapportionment plan brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of Black voters in Dawson. At-large elections in Dawson denied Black voters equal access to the local political process, the suit claimed. The three Blacks who were elected ran from wards in which there is now a majority of Black registered voters.
The election raises once more the question of whether or not Dawson has changed for good. Three years ago Attorney Millard Fanner paraded the evils of Dawson before a captive international audience during the “Dawson Five” murder trial. He portrayed the town and Terrell County as a White supremacist society that tried to frame five young innocent teens. When the murder charges were dropped for the five accused of gunning down a White farmer in a grocery store robbery, three of them left town. “Dawson is no place for a Black man,” one said.
There hasn’t been “any real social or economic change,” a Black minister, the Rev. Ezekiel M. Holley, said when questioned after the trial. “This is a racist town. Hate breeds here like a germ.” Ima Rude, the White executive secretary of the city council disagreed, however, saying “Dawson is the garden spot of the world. People don’t think in terms of color.”
Christopher Coates, the ACLU staff attorney who handled the voting rights suits, has been in and out of Dawson for the last five years. It is this very factor of race and the extent to which it colors all of Terrell county’s life that begins to explain a hardcore racist town like Dawson, he suggests.
“People from Andy Young to Jimmy Carter have said that if discrimination is stopped, everyone wins. Hogwash!” Coates said. “Whites get definite benefits from discrimination.”
He has found a pattern between racism and one’s own self-interest. It is sometimes more apparent in smaller towns like Dawson than in larger cities. With only a few jobs to go around, decisions about whether secretarial positions in the city clerk’s office go to Blacks or Whites loom vastly more
Coates believes that the level of repression in an area is directly related to the percentage of Blacks in the population and to the lack of White leadership that would advocate racial equality. The inclination on the part of officials to participate in blatant racist acts, he says, increases with the percentage of Blacks in the population.
By this standard, racial conditions in Terrell are no different than in surrounding areas. Terrell is one of 23 counties in southwest Georgia with majority Black populations. In Terrell County there was a mass exodus of Whites from the public schools to private schools when integration took place. In a county that is 60 percent Black, now the public schools there are 90 percent Black. Similarly, in neighboring Mitchell County the same thing happened so that now Blacks make up 48 percent of Mitchell’s population, but are 60 percent of the public school enrollment.
In other respects, though, “Terrible Terrell” is more staunch. Whereas some other counties might play it smart and allow a few token Blacks to register to vote, Coates said, so fearful was Terrell of Black power, they would allow almost no Blacks to register (12 Blacks in all) or serve on juries before lawsuits were won.
There are other exceptional factors too. One is Mayor James G. Raines. (Another is Carl Rountree, editor of the conservative newspaper, The Dawson Times, who still argues the segregationist line.)
In the Justice Department voter registration suit, Raines was then the chairman of the Terrell Board of Registrars and a defendant in the case. A wealthy landowner and Harvard law school graduate, Raines has been mayor of Dawson for a total of 16 years—12 consecutively—and is probably the most powerful man in Terrell County.
“Raines,” Coates contends, “is the key to why Terrell has had so many problems.” His inability to provide enlightened leadership has been the county’s biggest impediment, and because no economic pressure could be brought to bear on him, Raines was in an ideal position to provide that kind of leadership.
Raines responds to the charge in a humble, polite, good-ole-boy Southern fashion that he provided “the best leadership that I knew how.”
When the mayor talks about the changes that have taken place in Dawson during his
administration, he speaks of things like better paved streets, a sewage and water system, fire protection and pension plans for the police department. No mention is made of jobs or industry. There is still only one major industry in town and no construction is underway. But even the things the mayor points to with pride have come under attack. Councilman -elect Holloway says the town needs to continue sewage extensions and to finish paving and maintaining streets in the Black sections of Dawson.
Holloway, long considered an “agitator” by the White community, says there have been no vast improvements in Dawson. Holloway should know since he’s been battling in Dawson for years: he was one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU suit against the board of registrars; in 1968 a plaintiff against the jury commissioners; and in 1976 a plaintiff against the board of education and board of commissioners.
Holloway said that the only change he had seen on the part of Whites since he and the other Black councilmen took office has been in a “show of attitude.” He points to the fact that the Dawson Chamber of Commerce is actually soliciting Black membership. He and his wife, Emma Kate, were offered and accepted Chamber membership.
It is still too early to judge the changes in Dawson from its racially-mixed city council. In a three White/three Black split, the mayor is the tie-breaker. So far he has broken two ties when councilmen were deadlocked along racial lines. One time, Holloway reports, he voted with the Whites and the other time he voted with the Blacks. The mayor agreed to advertise the fact that Blacks are now permitted to use the formerly all-White cemetery. The cemetery figured prominently in defense strategy in the “Dawson Five” trial to show that a White supremacist attitude existed from birth to the grave in Dawson.
The impact of the Black city councilmen is not expected to be immediate or monumental. The city budget, for one thing, was already set when the trio took office. Still the councilmen have high hopes. Holloway says he wanted to put more Blacks in clerical and white collar jobs in city governments and to appoint Blacks to board and commission positions. Breedlove looks forward to a new image of Dawson that will draw back Blacks who left and attract new industry to give them jobs. How close they come to having their hopes realized is a page from Dawson’s history yet to be written.
Betty Chaney is senior editor of Southern Changes.