Crackdown in the Black Belt

Crackdown in the Black Belt

By Allen Tullos

Vol. 7, No. 1, 1985, pp. 1-5

In an apparent attempt to intimidate black voters in the rural South and push back electoral gains made since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, federal prosecutors in Mobile, Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama are currently seeking and obtaining federal grand jury indictments–on charges of voting fraud–against leading civil rights activists in the Black Belt.

The first to be indicted are Albert Turner (a former chief aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), his wife Evelyn, and co-worker Spencer Hogue, Jr., all from the town of Marion in Perry County. Essentially, the Turners and Hogue are charged with changing the absentee ballots of a number of black voters in the Democratic primary election of September 4,1984. They face a twenty-nine count indictment handed down on January 25,1985 by a federal grand jury in Mobile. Punishment upon conviction carries a maximum of 115 years in prison and $40,000 in fines. The trial for the Turners and Hogue will be held outside the Black Belt, in Mobile, and is scheduled to begin June 17.

Additional indictments of perhaps a dozen or more grassroots black leaders are expected soon in Greene Sumter, Lowndes and Wilcox counties. The list of likely defendants includes sheriff John Hulett of Lowndes, school board chairman Wendell Paris and county commission employee Adeline Webster of Sumter County, Eutaw city council member Spiver W. Gordon and retired schooteacher Rosie Carpenter in Greene County, and Rev. Thomas Threadgill and county commissioner Bobby Joe Johnson of Wilcox County.

Since the September 1984 primary, hundreds of persons who voted absentee have been interviewed by the FBI in Perry, Greene, Sumter, Lowndes and Wilcox counties. Voters were shown their ballots and asked if they voted for particular candidates. In October, the FBI raided the office of Booker T. Cooke, Jr., coordinator of election activities in Greene County, seizing all his office’s voting materials. Cooke is also on the list of expected indictees.

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On one occasion in the past several weeks FBI agents loaded more than two dozen subpoenaed black witnesses (many of whom are elderly citizens who remember all too well the era of segregation) onto buses, then carried them–with the automobile escort of Alabama State Troopers–to testify before the federal grand jury convened in Mobile’ In both Mobile and Birmingham, witnesses were photographed, fingerprinted and required to give handwriting samples.

Using provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which allow for federal intervention in instances of alleged state and local election law violations, the offices of US Attorney for the Southern, Middle and Northern Districts of Alabama are preparing to prosecute many of the black community leaders who helped assure the Act’s original passage in Congress and its extension in 1982. “The intent of the Voting Rights Act has been turned on its head,” says Steve Suitts, executive director of the Southern Regional Council.

Civil rights and voting rights workers throughout the South see the impetus for the federal investigations and indictments as coming from old nemeses among the white power structure in the Black Belt who have glimpsed encouragement in the Reagan Administration’s Department of Justice. Community organizers in the five southwest Alabama counties where the investigations are going on also see the hand of Alabama’s Republican US Senator Jeremiah Denton.

“This whole FBI investigation of absentee voting and the: scheduled trials,” defendant Albert Turner argues, “were set up to stop the political progress of black people in the Alabama Black Belt. The power structure wants to turn back the hands of time in Perry County and throughout west Alabama. I would encourage black people not to let my indictment stop them or discourage them. We need to vote in even larger numbers because they are trying to take our right to vote away again.”

In moving first against Albert Turner, the Federal agents and attorneys have targeted one of the Black Belt’s toughest and most saavy black political leaders. An experienced and dedicated community organizer for nearly thirty years, Turner has worked in Perry and surrounding counties to help black Alabamians gain their rights as citizens. In the early 1960s, Albert and Evelyn Turner initiated the lawsuit which first brought federal registrars into Perry County to assist blacks in getting their names on the voting roles in significant numbers.

In 1965, as the Alabama Director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Albert Turner assisted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the major campaigns of the civil rights movement. “I was with Dr. King everywhere he went in the 1960s,” he recalls. “And I helped to lead the mule train which brought him to his final resting place.”

Turner remained as state SCLC director until 1972 when he headed a Perry County program to assist black students in coping with school integration. A small farmer and an insurance agent, he has worked with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and has been the general manager of the Southwest Alabama Farmers Cooperatives Association (SWAFCA).

Through their community-based organization, the Perry County Civic League, the Turners and Spencer Hogue, Jr. have pursued the cause of fair legislative and municipal representation for black citizens in their home county and in the town of Marion. Over the course of many local elections, they have mobilized voters to overcome generations of white minority rule. With its growing success in assisting black candidates to win local and state offices, the Perry County Civic League–and other groups like it throughout the Black Belt–have put the old-guard white elite on the defensive.

Speaking to a demonstration of some 150 supporters on the steps of the federal courthouse in Mobile on January 31, the day that the Turners and Hogue pleaded innocent, Wendell Paris, chairman of the Sumter County School Board said, “The Alabama Black Belt has made more progress in the area of voter registration, voter education and electing black officials than most areas of the nation. This is why the efforts are being made to stop us. Local powers in Perry, Greene, Sumter and Lowndes counties have now gotten the support of US Senator Jeremiah Denton and the Reagan Justice Department in the fight to undermine the progress we have made in the twenty years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act.”

At present, the trail leading to Senator Denton remains circumstantial. His Washington office denies the Senator has had any involvement with the investigations, and demurs on further comment at the present time. Denton, a former Vietnam War POW, and Alabama’s only Republican US Senator in the twentieth century, won election in 1980 with solid white support and Ronald Reagan’s coattails. Denton’s extremely narrow margin of victory state-wide was 36,000 votes out of some 1 1/4 million cast. In the Black Belt, Denton lost handily to his Democratic opponent. As a

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sampler of black voter sentiment in the 1980 election, the nearly all-black voting beat of Boykin, in Wilcox County, supported Denton’s Democratic opponent by a margin of 233 to zero.

Since entering the Senate, Denton’s voting record and public pronouncements demonstrate that black Alabamians know who their friends aren’t. With his support for deep cuts in domestic spending and for large increases in military appropriations, the Senator has proven himself to be at odds with the aspirations of his home state’s poorest citizens–the residents of the Black Belt.

As he eyes his re-election prospects for 1986, Denton sees another strong Democratic challenge as inevitable. This time, however, there will be no Reagan windfall from a presidential campaign. Clearly, Denton stands to benefit almost as much as the local white politicos do from the intimidation of Alabama’s black voters that may result from the persecution-and prosecution-of black community organizers. Certainly too, the US Attorneys involved in the Black Belt investigations were appointed by the President upon the advice of the Republican US Senator from Alabama.

“We believe that with the re-election of Reagan, old line Black Belt politicians can go directly to Reagan’s Justice Department via Senator Denton,” says Wendell Paris. “The number of incidents and their timing lead us to believe that this effort at intimidation is being geared up from Washington itself.” How else, Paris wonders, can one explain the current circumstance in which three separate federal district attorneys are simultaneously investigating voter fraud in five Black Belt counties, all of which are predominantly black and all of which have substantial numbers of black elected officials?

Alabama State Senator Hank Sanders, whose Selma law firm–along with Oakland, California civil rights attorney Howard Moore–will represent the Perry County defendants, also points to the larger-than-local importance of the current pattern of federal investigations and indictments. “There are national implications in this and other investigations of black voting across the South and the nation,” says Sanders. “For the fifteen years, from 1965 until 1980, the federal government effectively enforced the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which protected the poor and minorities in this county. Now it is obvious that the government is abusing the provisions of the Act and is attacking us with sledgehammer blows, to try to kill the few hard-earned gains we have made.”

That attorney Hank Sanders now sits in the Alabama Senate comes as a result of years of grassroots efforts pursued by black community organizers such as the Turners and Hogue. A November, 1983 special election which enabled Sanders to take his place in the state legislature followed from a court-ordered redistricting plan that redressed the discriminatory reapportionment schemes which had helped white elites in the Black Belt maintain their governmental power. The federal court’s re-drawing of several Alabama senate and house districts allowed Sanders to run and win election from a new, black majority district. The boundaries of Sanders’ Alabama Senate District 23 includes three majority black state house seats, each of which is now filled by black state representatives.

Apparently, the white effort to involve the federal government’s investigative powers and the resulting focus upon absentee voting began in the aftermath of Sanders’ successful 1983 election campaign.

Absentee balloting emerged as a matter of serious concern to Black Belt white elites in the late 1960s, after the possibility of broad black registration began to become a reality. For at least a decade, white absentee landowners and former residents who have ties of kin and friends “down home,” but who now live anywhere from Birmingham to

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Chicago to New York have continued to vote in Black Belt contests at the request of local white officeholders and candidates. On election nights throughout the early 1970s, white officials found electoral deliverance inside dependable absentee voting boxes filled with lopsided margins. Federal and state authorties took little notice, and obtained no indictments, against any whites on charges of absentee voter fraud despite a series of complaints and lawsuits offered by resident blacks.

Black community organizers sought to counter white abuse of absentee balloting not only by registering complaints, but by registering a greater number of black absentee voters. They have worked to make the election process easier and more accessible for elderly blacks, for those attending college away from home, and for the many county residents who must commute to jobs across county lines.

Black Belt counties are the state’s poorest. To find jobs, many workers must travel out of their home county every day. Census data for 1980 shows that thirty-one percent of the working population in Perry County (home of the Turners and Hogue) work outside the county. In nearby Lowndes County, the number reaches almost fifty percent. To vote, these commuting workers must miss work or obtain absentee ballots.

In addition to being impoverished, the Black Belt contains a substantial elderly black population–fifteen percent of Perry County residents are sixty-five years of age or older Like those Perry Countians who work outside their county of residence, the elderly often have difficulty in registering to vote and in getting to the polls on election day.

Over the past twenty years, blacks in the ten southwest Alabama counties where the federal investigations are now underway have gradually won local elective offices. Prior to 1965, whites controlled all ten county commissions, eleven boards of education and thirty-four town governments. Since the Voting Rights Act, blacks have emerged to fill the majority of the seats on five county commissions and five school boards. Blacks now direct the municipal governments of nine towns, while whites still remain in control of five county governments and thirty-three of forty-two towns, including every county seat.

One major obstacle to further black electoral success can be found in the local boards of voter registrars, whose members are appointed by the governor of the state, George Wallace. Throughout the counties of the Black belt, the offices of voter registrars and their deputies remain in the hands of whites who are often hostile to black attempts to register. Typically, registrars’ offices here are open ten days out of each month. During these days, registration hours

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may extend only from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., minus an hour for lunch. Unlike the practices now found in such cities as Birmingham or Montgomery in which, for instance, League of Women Voters’ volunteers register prospective voters at shopping malls, the pathway to registration and voting remains filled with obstructions in much of southwest Alabama.

In 1981, the white legislators in the Black Belt convinced the Alabama legislature to enact a “reidentification” law. Over the strongest objections of black citizens, the Justice Department allowed existing voting roles to be wiped clean in several counties. Persons who wished to vote were required to appear, identify themselves and re-register. The predictable effect was the loss of a significant number of black voters who had registered during the voting drives of recent years.

When they began to lose control of the election machinery in the Black Belt, the white powers-that-be also turned for help to a justice system in which there are no black district attorneys or circuit judges. The current investigations and indictments remind many Alabamians of the 1981 conviction of Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder by an all-white jury in Pickens County on state charges of absentee voter fraud.

Although all but one of the black witnesses against Bozeman and Wilder recanted or changed their testimony, later indicating that they asked for the women’s assistance in voting, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld their convictions. After serving time in Tutwiler State Prison, Bozeman and Wilder’s conviction was overturned in federal court. Their case, however, seems to have left the lingering effect of reduced black voter participation in Pickens County.

Black absentee voting must be seen in light of present conditions, customary practices, and the historical context of white power in this majority black area. The hardships of contending with the Black Belt’s day-to-day political weather underscore the importance of the journeyman efforts of people such as the Turners and Spencer Hogue, Jr., and the significance of groups like the Perry County Civic League which seek to make the ballot accessible to black residents.

Like the Bozeman-Wilder trial, that of Albert and Evelyn Turner and Spencer Hogue, Jr.–as well as the other trials which now seem certain to follow–may come down to little more than swearing contests. Each side will offer witnesses to substantiate their claims as to whether absentee ballots were marked in accordance with, or at variance from, a particular voter’s preference, with or without his or her knowledge. Given the strong-arm methods which have been used to secure testimony, federal prosecutors may come to find their witnesses revising their accounts when intimidating circumstances become less frightening.

As in the current national political scene with its black neo-conservatives-and its Reagan apologists on the US Commission on Civil Rights–a few self-proclaimed community leaders will put their integrity in the employ of their community’s enemies. Yet, for those who know, and for those who care to learn about the Black Belt’s history, the alleged legal violations which suddenly-zealous FBI agents and US attorneys are using to form indictments must be understood in terms of the long revolution through which black citizens have engaged the pursuit of justice.