Crackdown in the Black Belt: Not-So-Simple Justice
By Allen Tullos
Vol. 7, No. 2, 1985, pp. 2-11
In a trial that should reveal the distance the Reagan Justice Department will travel to cooperate with local white officials in suppressing the voting rights of black citizens, the case of United States of America v. Albert Turner, Spencer Hogue, Jr., and Evelyn Turner moved into a federal courtroom in Selma, Alabama, on June 19.
Meanwhile, US attorneys continue to supervise investigations and bring similar indictments against grassroots civil rights leaders for alleged violations of absentee voting laws in five west Alabama Black Belt counties. Indicted in Birmingham on June 11 were five Greene Countians, including longtime activist and Eutaw city council member Spiver Gordon, the black mayor of the town of Union, James Colvin, and three voting rights workers.
Other targets of the investigations include sheriff John Hulett of Lowndes County, and–from Wilcox County–Rev. Thomas Threadgill (often regarded as the spiritual leader of the Black Belt) and county commissioner Bobby Joe Johnson.
Arguing that the Justice Department’s investigations of absentee voting practices in Alabama arise from a Reagan Administration policy of singling out black voting rights activists for prosecution, a group of nine black citizens (including four elected officials) from Greene, Lowndes, Perry, Sumter and Wilcox counties filed a class action suit on June 11 in federal district court in Montgomery challenging this policy and asking that the current, discriminatory, investigations be stopped.
Named as defendants in the federal suit are US Attorney General Edwin Meese; William Bradford Reynolds, Acting Associate Attorney General and head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division; Stephen S. Trott, who oversees Justice’s Criminal Division; and the US Attorneys for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama. The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Southeastern Office of the American Civil Liberties Union are representing the Black Belt citizens who have brought the complaint.
“We think it’s unfair the way the investigation is being conducted and felt this was the only way to let the people know what was going on,” said Wilcox County Sheriff Prince Arnold, one of the plaintiffs.
The civil suit charges that Justice Department officials and US Attorneys “are engaged in a concerted effort to unlawfully interfere with black citizens’ associational and political activities” in the Black Belt, and that the current investigations discourage citizens from exercising their right to vote. Federal and local officials are also accused of ignoring numerous citizens’ complaints as well as other information (such as that collected by federal election observers) with regard to electoral fraud and intimidation committed by whites and by black political opponents of the targets of the investigations.
In recent weeks, a clutch of FBI agents operating out of Mobile, Montgomery and Tuscaloosa offices have questioned as many as a thousand black absentee voters about the casting of their ballots in September 1984 elections. Civil rights leaders in the region wonder where these agents have been during the long years of white intimidation and violence that have accompanied the challenge to minority rule in the Black Belt.
The involvement of US Attorneys–whom local black citizens have taken to calling “federal persecutors”–in actions that intimidate voting rights organizations and voters in this majority black region of the South presents yet another face of the Reagan Administration’s national effort
to push back two decades of civil rights gains. While not as widely known as Justice’s moves to overturn affirmative action programs in state and local governments across the country, or its recent decision to oppose (in a US Supreme Court brief) North Carolina’s single member redistricting plan, the trial of the “Marion Three” and the ongoing Black Belt investigations threaten to reverse the substantial electoral gains made by grassroots black majorities since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The discriminatory nature of the Justice Department’s Black Belt investigations can be traced to a Reagan Administration policy change. Prior to 1984, Justice deferred to local authorities in cases of mixed federal-state elections in which an alleged crime had no effect on the outcome of a federal election. Just such an election was the September, 1984 primary from which the current indictments have sprung. In the summer of 1984, Justice Department officials–including William Bradford Reynolds and Stephen Trott–devised a new policy for federal investigations of election offenses. Now, federal officials could begin to investigate “political participants” who “seek out the elderly, socially disadvantaged, or the illiterate, for the purpose of subjugating their electoral will” or under whose “watchful eye” a voter happened to “mark his or her ballot.” According to Justice’s manual on election crimes, this policy is aimed at persons who “exploit . . . the franchise of dependent voters.”
The Justice Department has applied this superficially helpful new policy in an explicitly racial and regional manner, targeting for investigation only black civil rights activists in Alabama Black Belt and other Southern majority black counties. According to materials filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in a pre-trial motion on behalf of Perry County defendant Spencer Hogue, Jr., Assistant Director of Justice’s Office of Public Affairs John Russell is quoted as saying that “civil rights leaders and religious leaders” have been targeted for investigation because of “arrogance on the part of blacks” in the region.
“They have come in here, with their indictment papers in their pockets, to wipe us out,” says Sumter County schoolboard member Wendell Paris, one target of the investigation. “There’s another Reconstruction headed this way. If they get the people they’re after, that’s the end for the foreseeable future of black sheriffs in the Black Belt of Alabama, that’s the end of black state legislators, that’s the end of officials elected by the majority of black people.”
At stake in the Black Belt is the coalescence of black political power over a multi-county region which has historically been dominated by some of the Deep South’s strongest white politicos. At stake are scores of local elective offices, administrative control of revenues, resources and policies, sufficient clout to secure black participation in government public works contracts and programs, several seats in the Alabama legislature, influence upon the outcome of a US Congressional candidacy, and the margin of difference in a close Senate race.
Over the past twenty years, blacks in the ten southwest Alabama counties affected most by the current prosecutions 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. The 138 black elected officials in the ten west Alabama Black Belt counties account for forty-four percent of all of Alabama’s black elected office holders. Among this number are three sheriffs, one probate judge, three state representatives and one state senator.
Although anything close to exact voting registration figures for blacks and whites in this ten county area (indeed, throughout the South) are both hard to come by and reflect voting rolls from which the dead, departed and duplicitous of both races have not been cleared, the relative numbers tell a story. From the pre-1965 era when there were essentially no registered black voters in the Black Belt, 1982 registration figures show more than 70,000 black voters and 62,659 whites.
“The local white powers and the feds have said that the Black Belt has gotten too politically strong,” says Wendell Paris. “That’s what this is about. This isn’t really about a few absentee ballots. And they’ve begun by indicting Albert Turner because he is the bellcow of the Black Belt.
“Do you think that they’re going to come through here and put Albert and Evelyn in jail, Spencer Hogue in jail, Spiver Gordon and Rosie Carpenter in jail, John Hulett, Reverend Threadgill in jail–and you think black folks would come back to the polls”
The success of the strategy of collaboration between local and federal officials to thwart the emergence of black political power in this majority-black region of the South will be significantly affected by the outcome and the public reaction to the trial of the three defendants from Perry County.
After months of a joint local-federal investigation in which white law enforcement officials, US attorneys and FBI agents targeted black civil rights leaders, violated the secrecy of black voters’ ballots, eavesdropped upon the activities of a grassroots voting organization, intimidated grand jury witnesses, and ignored evidence of election wrong-doing committed by the largely white, political opponents of the defendants, federal prosecutors have assembled the approximately two dozen absentee ballots which the Turners and Hogue are accused of altering, falsely witnessing and mailing and for which they face years in prison and tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
Like Black Belt circumstances in general, the Perry County situation must be understood in an historical context. For twenty years Albert Turner, Evelyn Turner and Spencer Hogue, Jr., have worked through the community organization which they founded, the Perry County Civil League, to improve the lot of black citizens in their home county and region. From 1965 until 1972, Albert Turner directed the Alabama activities of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He was a chief lieutenant and confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr., driving the highways and backroads of Alabama during the height of modern white resistance.
“There’s no explanation in the world as to how I’m still living,” Turner has said. I ran the state SCLC office. I was the top rigger. And I didn’t back off of nothing. I went in every county in this Black Belt and preached and left at twelve o’clock that night and drove home by myself. And ain’t never looked back. Now you tell me there ain’t no God. I don’t listen to that kind of talk.”
In the mid-1960s, voting rights activities of the Perry County Civic League first began to move the county toward political democracy. The group faced an intransigent land holding class, descendants of ante-bellum Black Belt planters, who owned the area’s resources, and controlled the local governmental offices. Supporters of the Perry County Civic
League also faced the deferential customs, deep fears and historical powerlessness of the black population in this region where economic survival has been tied for generations to the fortunes of local white families.
The PCCL helped local blacks to fight the battles for integration of public facilities and institutions. It assisted poor, elderly and disabled black citizens in making application for federal food, medical and financial aid. And, over a period of years, using the wedge provided by the Voting Rights Act, the PCCL chipped away at white rule in this county where today sixty percent of the population is black.
Throughout the Black Belt prior to 1965, blacks were shut-out of the electoral process. No blacks were elected to public office in these counties for nearly a century following Reconstruction. The Turners, now under indictment for alleged voting law violations, initiated the lawsuits that first brought federal registrars into Perry County to aid blacks in becoming registered voters. PCCL supporters have carried voters to the polls, accompanied them past the uniformed presence of armed white lawmen, and upon request, have gone with them into the voting booth. As in surrounding counties where similar efforts were underway, black registration in Perry County grew steadily, increasing from twelve voters in 1965 to the over five-thousand names that are on the current rolls.
Blacks who protested their historical inability to vote in Perry County were met first with hostility, arrest and violence. In March 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black voting rights activist was murdered. When racial violence diminished, white resistance continued with public and private institutions fighting against integration and democratic control. Today, Perry County, like the rest of the Black Belts remains at the heart of Dixie’s private school, “Christian academy” movement.
“The effects of this history,” observes Steve Suitts, SRC executive director, “are real and direct upon many elderly blacks who have been victimized by a history of racial exclusion and violence–and by the low levels of education obtained as a result of government-enforced segregation.
“For example, a black woman at the age of sixty-seven today in Perry County has spent almost three-fourths of her life in segregation where blacks could not vote, could not attend white schools, could not use public toilets, and had to have a white person vouch for her in order to obtain loans or government services. This is why it is important that the black elderly, who make up fifteen percent of the Perry County population have private citizens whom they trust to assist in exercising the right to vote. For many of these blacks, merely approaching a courthouse or polling place means overcoming a lifetime of custom.”
“We have problems,” says voting rights worker Rosie Carpenter of Greene County, “because we are competing with white bankers, doctors, lawyers and businessmen. They sit near the polls to intimidate the black voters. Dr. Joe P. Smith, a local doctor here, came over to the black precinct at the Eutaw Activity Center and there were black people afraid to vote their conviction because he was sitting at that table.
“A black lady told me when I went to show her how we were voting, ‘I tell you what I’m going to do. Dr. Joe P. been to my house and he gave me this card and showed me how to’ vote. You know he’s us doctor. I’m going to vote the way that the black people are voting, but I can’t let him know it because he is us doctor and we will need him.’
“This same doctor,” Ms. Carpenter continues, ” had white folks picking up and hauling black folks. Out at the armory I saw white ladies bringing in their cooks and maids. I had never seen that before in history. The white mistresses were bringing their cooks in.
“When Spiver Gordon was running to be the first black elected to the Eutaw city council,” recalls Ms. Carpenter, white policemen were posted at black voting boxes, in their uniforms and with pistols.”
Absentee balloting emerged as a matter of serious concern to whites in the Black Belt during the late 1960s, as black registration became more common. 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 Chicago to New York have continued to vote in Black Belt contests at the request of local white officeholders and candidates. (See “Crackdown in the Black Belt,” Southern Changes, March/April, 1985.) On election nights throughout the early 1970s, white officials found electoral deliverance inside dependable absentee voting boxes filled with lopsided margins. Federal and state authorities took no notice, and sought no indictments, against any whites on charges of absentee voter fraud.
“Do you know why the roads to white folks’ cemeteries are paved in the Black Belt?,” Wilcox County Commissioner
Bobby Joe Johnson asks. “It’s so people won’t get their feet wet if it rains on election day.”
Black support groups such as the Perry County Civic League 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 manufacturing and wood-cutting jobs across county lines.
“You can’t win an election in the Black Belt of Alabama if you don’t have a sophisticated get-out the-absentee vote effort,” points out Annie Thomas, Rosie Carpenter’s sister and another experienced organizer in Greene County.
Among the black absentee voters in the Black Belt counties are a disproportionately high number of voters who are illiterate or otherwise incapable by themselves of understanding the intricate procedures required in order to apply for, fill out, witness and return absentee ballots in the proper form. “Without the assistance of persons knowledgeable about absentee voting procedures and the issues and candidates involved,” says the SRC’s Suitts, “many rural black voters in the Black Belt counties of Alabama, although fully qualified to vote absentee, would be unable to do so and accordingly would be deprived of the franchise.”
Virtually all blacks in the Black Belt over the age of twenty-five were educated, if at all, in substantially inferior, segregated schools. The level of education for the adult population, especially the elderly, is very low. By the 1980 census, only forty-three percent of the total population over the age of twenty-five in Perry County had a high school diploma, although fifty-seven percent of all Alabamians of that age had high school diplomas. For the elderly and black the level of education is much lower. For example, the number of persons twenty-five years or older with four years of high school education in 1950 in Perry County–those who would be fifty-five years or older today–was only 110 of 5,780 blacks.
Black Belt counties are the state’s poorest. To find jobs, many workers must travel out of their home county everyday. 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–and jeopardize their jobs with white employers–or obtain absentee ballots.
Job and housing discrimination in Black Belt counties has restricted many blacks to housing in widely dispersed rural areas, distant from voting locations. For these citizens, absentee balloting has meant increased participation in elections.
The right to vote in the Black Belt also remains impeded by practical barriers. The number of days, the location, and the times at which a citizen can register to vote this region are limited severely in comparison to more urban and suburban locations in Alabama.
“There ain’t nobody else out there who understands this stuff like we do,” Albert Turner has said with regard to the efforts of community organizers to gather the rural black absentee vote. “I mean you got to know the laws, you got to have dedication. You’ve got to get up off your ass and get out there and go to them folks’ houses. This ain’t no playtime.”
The Perry County Civic League’s get-out-the-absentee vote organization merits awards rather than indictments. The PCCL has taken a foothold in the Voting Rights Act and climbed toward political power by squeezing every possible vote from the county’s black communities.
About ten or fifteen group leaders are responsible for the different communities of Perry County. Group captains first identify potential absentee voters and help them fill out applications for ballots. State law requires county officials to post, daily, the names of persons requesting absentee ballots and also requires the ballot to be sent on the day the county clerk receives the request. Black Belt voting rights workers watch the courthouse bulletin board to see when a ballot is in the mail.
“And we get out there,” says Rosie Carpenter, who performs a similar task in Greene County, “and make sure the voters get their ballots before anybody else can get them.”
“Over the last several years,” says Steve Suitts, “elderly black voters in the Black Belt have come to depend upon black citizens, often civil rights advocates, to assist them in filling out their ballots. The relationship between the activists and elderly blacks is based upon trust, oral communications and shared assumptions. The advocate must often interpret the oral instructions of the voter in light of their past relationship and understanding.
“For instance, several years ago, I traveled with a black civil rights worker in the Black Belt as he visited with and assisted absentee voters. I remember in particular one person we stopped to see.
“‘I want it done like last time,’ said an elderly black voter, telling the organizer how she wished to vote. Yet, on this election’s ballot there were fewer candidates than ‘last time.’
“Because I was present,” Suitts continues, “the black organizer asked the woman a question he later told me he already had answered for himself.
‘You want to vote for the blacks that are running?’
‘You know that’s it,’ she said. ‘ Don’t you make fun of an old woman like me.”‘
Oral tradition and black community consensus inform the political culture of the Black Belt. To be effective, civil rights advocates must make make good faith interpretations of oral instructions, which may not be plain in meaning to others who do not know the assumptions established over time in their relationship. Yet, if community organizers approached many elderly and non-literate voters differently, they would discourage many of these folk from voting, and they would not have achieved the increased registration and turnout in the Black Belt since 1965.
Not all elderly black voters who need and ask for assistance fit the customary image. “We have some very shrewd and determined old folks among the elderly population in this Black Belt,” says Wendell Paris. “They are our best voters because they were the ones out there in the streets getting their heads beaten in 1965. Anybody who was fifty years old in the movement is seventy years old today. They are our best voters. They’ll get on the telephone and call you and say, ‘When are you going to come and get my vote?’ They are serious about voting.”
After ballots are marked, they are collected door to door by the group captains and brought to a central meeting. Perhaps one person picks up twenty-five ballots in her community. A man in another community may gather seventy-five or a hundred ballots. All the ballots are brought together in order to know exactly who has been contacted and how many will be mailed. In Perry County, the marked ballots are then taken to the county seat of Marion to be mailed, using postage purchased by the PCCL. In the September 4, 1984 primary Albert and Evelyn Turner mailed about 350 ballots; Spencer Hogue, Jr. mailed perhaps 150.
“If you mailed a ballot from the end of the county, out in the rural area,” says Rosie Carpenter, speaking from her experience in Greene County, “it probably never would get to town.”
White opponents have been known to go through the backwoods roads of Perry County and take enough ballots out of the mailbox to change an election.
“This is what folks like Albert Turner went through the
black belt teaching people,” say Wendell Paris. That’s why the white folks consider him as the instigator of this.”
When black communities are organized so thoroughly, all the potential absentee voters are easily identified. “We know,” says Annie Thomas, “who is going to college, who’s sick, who goes out of the county to work. And that’s what the FBI can’t understand. That’s the reason they look for conspiracies and think there’s so much fraud. They know that there is no way for any a single individual to honestly be able to go out in all these places and know who’s sick or who’s going out of the county to work. What surprises the FBI is the fact that we have a system whereby a local person who knows the community gets people these applications and ballots. They don’t believe anybody could know all these people and their situations. But you can’t do it any other way and hope to win elections.”
With gradual but steady success, the Perry County Civic League has identified, promoted and help elect candidates that represent the majority of the county’s black voters. Yet, as the current prosecutions demonstrate, the PCCL continues to face a core of diehard enemies among the county’s traditional white leadership, as well as a small but significant number of black political rivals who at one time or another failed to get PCCL endorsement for their candidacies.
White powerholders in the town of Marion and the county of Perry have not taken kindly to the PCCL’s persistent attempts to perpetrate democracy. The beginnings of the current trial go back to the fall and winter of 1982-83 when state district attorney Roy Johnson of Marion convened a grand jury to consider his allegations that the PCCL’s voter-assistance programs were not conducted lawfully. This investigation targeted Albert Turner and Spencer Hogue, Jr., and arose from the successful efforts of PCCL endorsed candidates in the September, 1982 primary and run-off elections. Throughout the Perry County drama, District Attorney Johnson has acted the defender for the interests of the county’s good white society.
After Johnson presented his evidence against Turner, Hogue and other PCCL supporters, the grand jury found no grounds for any indictments. In preparing the final report of the grand jury, however, he inserted a passage referring to vote “tampering” and requested an “outside agency, preferably federal to monitor our elections.” Subsequently, Johnson and others in Perry County, including Probate Judge Floyd Cooke appearing on local television, have relied upon this statement in the grand jury report as proof of a local desire and need for a federal criminal investigation. Interviews with the grand jurors themselves, however, have established that they did not intend to request a federal criminal investigation, but were merely endorsing the kind of routine federal voter assistance and monitoring which blacks in the area have been requesting and receiving since passage of the Voting Rights Act.
By the time that the majority black, locally constituted, state grand jury had failed to indict any members of the Perry County Civic League, District Attorney Johnson was already looking for federal friends in high prosecutorial places. In October of 1982 he wrote to Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Johnson charged that the situation in Perry County with regard to absentee voting abuse and intimidation at the polls was “becoming explosive.” He said the county sheriff’s office was unable to protect citizens’ voting rights. Johnson suggested the need for a federal investigation and asked, not for the usual federal observers, but for federal marshals to supervise upcoming elections. In reply, Assistant Attorney General Reynolds wrote Johnson that under provisions of the Voting Rights Act, the office of Attorney General could not SCLC federal marshals to conduct local elections. Reynolds suggested that Johnson take his information to the FBI or the US Attorney for the Southern District.
Roy Johnson persisted. Sometime in 1984, the Justice Department and US Attorney Jeff Sessions of Mobile (who came to his prosecutorial office the grace of Alabama’s first term Republican Senator Jeremiah Denton), agreed to join Roy Johnson in a federal-local investigation of members and supporters of the Perry County Civic League. Conveniently, this effort coincided with the change in US Department of Justice selective-prosecution policies with regard to alleged voter fraud, and with the 1984 federal elections.
In the summer and fall of 1984, with the encouragement of the Department of Justice, District Attorney Johnson began to pursue an investigation of the political and voter assistance activities of PCCL supporters. County officials and would-be officials worked in concert with the US Attorney and FBI agents to secure prosecution of PCCL
supporters in order to undercut the organization’s political effectiveness. The investigation included the assigning of the local law enforcement officials to monitor PCCL meetings with listening devices and to conduct surveillance of PCCL voter-assistance activities leading up to the September 4, 1984 primary election.
In addition, after consulting with US Attorney Sessions in Mobile and Department of Justice officials in Washington, District Attorney Johnson advised several Perry County candidates or former candidates for local public office–all of whose candidacies had been or were being opposed by the PCCL-to file a lawsuit in September of 1984 with Circuit Judge Anne McKelvy. This suit’s request, which was granted, permitted white Perry County Circuit Clerk Mary Auburtin (a long time PCCL opponent) to number all absentee ballots and envelopes–without the knowledge or consent of absentee voters–in such a way that the names of each voter and the candidates they voted for could be known to law enforcement officials.
After the September election, FBI agents took the numbered absentee ballots, went to the homes of dozens of elderly black citizens, confronting them with ballots which they thought had been cast in secret, and began questioning them about “ballot tampering.” By law, federal actions affecting the custody, secrecy and integrity of ballots must be supported by probable cause and authorized both by federal court order and the prior approval of the Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice-none of which occurred in the Perry County investigation.
The next step in the federal-local effort was the convening–in the fall of 1984–of a federal grand jury, not in the Perry County area where all the relevant documents, witnesses and targets were, but in Mobile. Unlike the state grand jury convened in the Black Belt by District Attorney Johnson in 1982, selection of members of a federal grand jury–as well as the jury for the Selma trial–drew upon a jury roll heavily weighted with white, male, Mobilians.
In the weeks between the September, 1984, primary and the November general election, dozens of elderly, black Perry County absentee voters were interrogated at their homes, then–with the help of FBI agents, Alabama State Troopers, several Marion city police officers and a game warden–were loaded on buses, and with a Trooper escort, were transported two-hundred miles to testify about who they had voted for and who had given them assistance in casting their ballots.
These tactics of threatening, frightening and intimidating elderly and uneducated witnesses, and of leading many of them to believe that their absentee voting somehow violated the law, resulted in inaccurate and misleading testimony. Among the witnesses whom the Government carried to Mobile were several whose health was threatened by the trip; a man in his nineties suffered a stroke and a woman, a ninety-year-old woman had a relapse of heart trouble. The Mobile ordeal has convinced some black citizens of Perry County never to vote again.
Mobile is not the Black Belt and the federal white grand jurors who were selected there had little understanding of or sympathy with the defendants’ voter-assistance and voter advocacy activities. Although members of the Perry County Civic League–and participants in similar groups across the South–engage in constitutionally protected activities in helping voters obtain absentee ballots, by endorsing candidates, and by aiding elderly and illiterate voters to cast their ballots, these practices offended some of the Mobile grand jurors’ strongly felt beliefs that voting is only proper when each individual voter votes in total isolation and privacy without the knowledge or assistance of anyone else. A twenty-nine count indictment was brought and the trial set for Selma.
One other theme must be wound into the present story of the Marion Three and the Black Belt’s prospects for political democracy. By 1982, two local groups–the White Citizens Council and Concerned Citizens of Perry County–were working actively against the Perry County Civic League to elect white candidates and the few black candidates willing to fly a flag of convenience. The appearance of a number of black “coalition” candidates, as they currently describe themselves in the Black Belt, represents the most recent innovation in the effort of white elites to ignore the handwriting on the wall.
In Greene County, where the “coalition” movement stirred to life in early 1984 (and where blacks, who count for seventy-eight percent of the population, have held all of the county’s elective offices since 1968), a published handbill announcing the “coalition’s” organizational meeting argued that “if the forces of the radical Black front” were to be defeated, the “key for the 1984 County election is to support good, responsible Blacks and to keep Whites out of the race.” This strategy of combining white votes from the town of Eutaw with an obliging minority of black votes led to several victories in the 1984 Greene County election.
“In the long run,” Wendell Paris observes with regard to the white strategy of divide and conquer, “single-member districting is the best way. Ain’t no doubt about it. You see, you can always get a few of these blacks who ain’t into nothing, who just want prestige, and a white man tells him, ‘I’ll elect you, cause you are a good guy.’
“Of course, what hurts these white folks so bad is that we did that to them. When we first got started we couldn’t beat the entrenched white politicians. So what we did as black people was vote for a milder white man to move out the giant. And came back then with a black to beat the rookie white. They’re reversing that on us.
“What they’re doing at this point is getting a Tom black elected and next time they’re going in themselves because they hope to have us split.”
To head off the “coalition” strategy that cripples black voting strength, Alabama state senator Hank Sanders of Selma along with state representatives Lucius Black of York, and Jenkins Bryant of Newbern (black legislators whose own elections testify to the growing self-determination movement in the Black Belt), navigated a redistricting bill through the Alabama legislature during the 1985 session. The new law provides for the replacement of the present at large method of electing county commissioners with new single member district plans for the counties of Greene, Wilcox, Sumter, Lowndes and Perry. Already, white probate judge Floyd Cook of Perry County-a stalwart of old guard opposition-has asked the Justice Department (under the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act) to object to the new state law.
“The local people in Marion,” observes Wendell Paris, “would almost rather have war than for the legislature to have passed the single-member district plan. They believe that Albert Turner will run for one of the soon-to-be created districts and be elected. If he does, he could turn out to be chairman of the county commission, which would be tantamount to being probate judge. They were hoping Albert would be in jail by now, or on probation with his record ruined and his influence at a dead end.”
The prospect of representation on Black Belt county commissions in proportion to the racial distribution of the population is unprecedented in the region. Supporters of the Perry County Civic League and voting rights groups in the neighboring counties soon to apply the colored pencils of redistricting to huge county maps like the one which fills a living room wall at Albert and Evelyn Turner’s home in Marion.
“Free the Marion Three” reads the 1960s-style slogan on a tee shirt now being seen from Selma to Port Epes on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. Above the slogan appears a black and white drawing of the Turners and Spencer Hogue, Jr., as they pose in front of a map of Marion drawn in single member districts. Will the census tracts belong to the people?
“So now,” hopes Sumter County schoolboard member Paris, “white voters in Perry County will get their two seats and we will get our three. In Greene they will get their one and we will get our four. In Sumter they will get their two and we will get our four. One person, one vote and a surer chance at fairness for black and white.”
And so the importance of the current trial in Selma.