Taking the Fifth
By Marilyn Davis and Alex Willingham
Vol. 8, No. 3, 1986, pp. 7-9
Two election contests have drawn much attention to Georgia this year: a race crucial in determining the party alignment in the US Senate, and a struggle between long-time allies that will send a strong and articulate black Southerner to Congress. Indeed, the Senate campaign helped prompt the congressional one.
The race for the House seat took place in Georgia’s Fifth District, centered in Atlanta. Georgia, and the nation, have become accustomed to the special nature of the state’s Fifth District, since mid-century one of the South’s most volatile and visible political theatres. During the last forty years, the Fifth has sent Georgia’s first woman to Congress, followed her with an arch-segregationist, later with Andrew Young, and most recently, white liberal Wyche Fowler.
This year Fowler left his congressional job and won the Democratic Party’s nomination for the US Senate. In making the run for the Senate, Fowler is testing whether a record built in his old district, composed entirely of urban voters and a majority-black population, can sit well with the citizens in rural, whiter and more conservative areas of the state. Some answers were provided in the August 12th primary. Fowler captured the Democratic party nomination against leading contender Hamilton Jordan (once of the Carter White House staff) without a runoff. Now, in one of the country’s most important campaigns, Fowler faces Reaganite incumbent Mack Mattingly this fall.
With Fowler gone, the action in the Fifth’s Democratic primary turned upon the rivalry of two civil rights veterans: Georgia state aerator Julian Bond and Atlanta city councilmember John Lewis (both age 46). Lewis was to eventually win the nomination in a come-from-behind upset decided in the run-off primary on September 2.
The Fifth District has a black population of sixty-five percent (the black voting age population is sixty percent). Bond and Lewis were hoping to become just the third black among the 138 members now serving in the US House from the eleven Southern states (blacks make up twenty percent of the population of the South).
Lewis, son of an Alabama sharecropper, was a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s. At the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech, Lewis received national attention when march organizers demanded that he censor and tone down his own public remarks. Two years later, he was one of the main targets of police attacks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the Selma to Montgomery March.
Lewis later directed the Southern Regional Council’s Voter Education Project. His first attempt at public office came in 1977 when he made an unsuccessful attempt to win the congressional seat. He was appointed head of the federal Action agency in the Carter Administration. In 1981, he won election to the Atlanta city council and became a chief advocate of ethics in government. In 1985 he was reelected over token opposition.
Bond is also a former SNCC leader (he was communications director), active in voter education. He is one of three children of Horace Mann Bond, the renowned educator and historian. In 1966, after being elected to the Georgia General Assembly, Bond was denied his seat when he stood firm in support of SNCC’s anti-Vietnam War policy statement. He was able to join the state legislature only after a legal battle which drew international attention and support.
Although still too young to accept the office, at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago Bond’s name was placed in nomination as the party’s vice-presidential candidate. Bond has been widely sought as a gifted public speaker, particularly on college campuses. He once hosted NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
The contest between Bond and Lewis meant that Georgia would send to Congress a civil rights activist with strong credentials appropriate for a congressional district that has struggled for decades with the declining traditional symbols and the new and complex strains emerging in contemporary Southern politics.
The beginning of that struggle may be dated from a special election held in February of 1946, when Fifth District voters sent Helen Douglas Mankin, Georgia’s first woman to Congress to fill the unexpired term of the recently resigned veteran Representative Robert Ramspeck. That year’s special election marked the first time Atlanta’s black voters had been allowed to participate in a congressional election since 1929. Their participation had been prohibited by the White Primary system under which voting in the nominating elections conducted by the Democratic party was limited to white citizens. Democratic nomination amounted to victory.
When the time came for Mankin to run again, in the regularly scheduled primary election of 1946, blacks gave her strong support. She received an overwhelming vote in the Ashby Street precinct that was to become a bellwether of black political participation in Atlanta.
Representative Mankin’s tenure was short. She won a popular majority in the regular primary, but was denied the nomination when Democratic party leaders decided to make a “special exception” and apply the rules of the county unit system–another of Georgia’s traditional disfranchising devices.
The ultimate victor that year was James C. Davis, ally of the openly racist Eugene Talmadge whose faction then controlled the Democratic party and whose views could not have been more in contrast to those of the majority of the Fifth’s population.
The county unit system insured the continued renomination and reelection of Davis, although he drew consistent opposition and, in 1952, again lost the popular vote. Blacks always opposed Davis and his segregationist views. In 1954, Morris Abrams, then flying the banner of Southern liberalism, lost a party
nomination to Davis. Abrams received ninety-four percent of the vote at that Ashby street box. When the county unit system was declared invalid in a 1962 Supreme Court decision, Davis did not seek reelection.
In the following years, the Fifth was to elect a white Democrat, Charles Weltner, who would be one of the few Southerners to vote for civil rights legislation, and who resigned his seat rather than run on a ticket with an avowed segregationist. Weltner was replaced in 1966 by one of the region’s first Republicans Fletcher Thompson.
In 1972, after an attempted gerrymander by the Georgia legislature, the white majority district elected Andrew Young as the state’s first black congressman. Young was known as a close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. He then worked as director of the Atlanta Community Relations Commission–a position that afforded him wide contact among the district’s voters and established his reputation as a mediator. During Young’s years of campaigning for Congress, he enjoyed wide bi-racial voting support. He received a critical fourth of the white vote in that first winning election and increasingly larger proportions in his reelection efforts.
Young served until 1977 when he accepted an appointment by President Carter to head the US delegation to the United Nations.
Despite the growing black population in the Atlanta area, the Fifth District remained majority white. Boundary lines were drawn in such a way as to split the black voters among three congressional districts. During the 1980 reapportionment, an attempt was made to redraw the lines. The Georgia legislature refused, but was eventually forced, to improve matters when a federal court held the districts to be discriminatory. New lines were drawn creating a majority black population in the Fifth District in 1982.
The Fifth elected, after Young, Wyche Fowler, a white who shared the moderate views of Atlanta’s black middle class. Fowler served and won reelection as the racial make-up of the district was reversed.
The idea of a white representing a black majority seemed to suit the fancy of a district where a black had represented a white majority. Black leaders praised Fowler’s voting record and his attention to serving constituents. He was adept at campaigning within the black community. During the Reagan drive to dismantle social programs targeted to urban and minority citizens, Fowler was a dependable opponent.
The arrangement became uncomfortable, however, as potential rivals began to insist that the district select a black representative. In 1984, SCLC activist Hosea Williams and three other blacks challenged Fowler, who nevertheless won handily. This year, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, as well as an opportunity to challenge the freshman Mattingly, Fowler chose to make his move for the Senate.
Although ten candidates entered the contest when Fowler decided not to seek the congressional seat, the Fifth was really Bond’s to win or lose.
National celebrities and politicians–including Rosa Parks and New York mayor Ed Koch–came into the district to campaign, most of them supporting Bond. Former New York Representative Shirley Chisholm,
now head of the National Black Women’s Political Congress, came to endorse Jan Douglass, one of five women candidates.
The August primary in the Fifth developed within a broad consensus on issues among the candidateds. Most opposed intervention in Central America and supported effective sanctions against apartheid in South Africa. On the whole, the candidates were sharply critical of the Reagan effort to cirpple domestic programs, curtail civil liberties, bloat the military, and politicize the government’s civil rights agencies.
Bond’s frontrunner status was taken for granted both by the other candidates and the news media. He was the leading fundraiser among the group and enjoyed wide recognition in the opinion polls. Consequently he became the target of “negative advertising” by opponents who perceived him as vulnerable among white voters.
Specially-targeted radio spots said Bond would promote racial division, an allegation based on speeches in Bond’s 1972 A Time to Speak, A Time to Act, a book which responded to the growing racial and socioeconomic differences between the inner city and the suburbs. Other radio spots claimed Bond to be delinquent in his federal tax payments. No taxes are currently in arrears but in recent years, the allegation said, some had been.
Such charges exploited a stereotype of Bond as a media personality, ineffective, disorganized, and lazy.
Bond’s defenders argued that his persona and glamour were further reasons to commend him to voters. They pointed, also, to his twenty years of perseverance in the Georgia legislature which should be seen, they said, in relation to the hostility he encountered. A conservative, white, “old boy,” leadership not only despised Bond’s presence but often used its powers spitefully to limit his access. A loyal constituency repeatedly resumed Bond to office.
An opposite image from that of the flashy, glib, Bond dogged John Lewis, a man whom the editors of Time once called a saint. In this year’s campaign he enjoyed the endorsement of the Atlanta Constitution (as he did in 1977). Yet in ’77 (and again in ’86,) there were questions about whether he is dynamic enough to give effective representation.
Lewis’ defenders pointed to a personal history marked by hard work, sacrifice and principled dissent. They say his persistent advocacy of ethics in government while on the Atlanta City Council illustrates his best quality, integrity. Lewis’s ethics proposals walked with leaden feet among some of his colleagues (four of the current council members have had brushes with the law), but he has pursued this knotty and sensitive issue with characteristic courage.
Some Atlanta voters, wondering at what spot the ethical footsteps might trespass across the threshold of civil liberties were startled when, in the strained final days of the first primary campaign, drug testing was made an issue. Lewis and several others volunteered to undertake drug testing at a local hospital. Bond refused. The action set the tone for a Run-off campaign marked by considerably sharper controversy. Lewis hammered away at the drug theme manipulating it, and other conservative domestic and foreign issues as a strategy to appeal to white voters.
On the eve of the August 12 primary, Bond hoped to win outright. A day later he received forty-seven percent of the vote to Lewis’ thirty-six percent (double what was granted to him in the pre-election polls) forcing the September 2 runoff.
Despite his failure to avoid a run-off, Bond demonstrated strong vote getting power. Of the 242 precincts in the district, Bond carried over seventy perecent on August 12. He outpolled Lewis in the black precincts (getting as high as seventy percent of the vote and averaging sixty-one percent), but came in third overall in the white precincts. Bond also won a majority of the precincts (sixty percent) in the run- off.
In August and again on September 2, Bond won low income black precincts by comfortable majorities. The crucial difference in the election was the refusal of whites to vote for Bond in appreciable numbers. Upper income whites, were especially reluctant to vote for Bond. Precincts of affluent whites rarely gave him more than ten percent of the vote. The extraordinary majorities Lewis enjoyed among white voters furnished the key surprise in the voting and poses a new set of questions about the quality of politics to be expected in a district with such contradictory voter preferences between the affluent white minority and the low income, inner city black majority.
Only seventy-thousand voters (twenty-nine percent of the 230,000 registered) came out for the August 12 primary–about the same number as voted in the September runoff. The small voter turnout is a striking irony given the roles these two men have played in voter registration.
Even in the Fifth District, black voters continue to suffer special disadvantages in the political process, the results of a legacy of underparticipation, of continuing disparities in social and economic opportunities, and of growing doubts about the capacity of political leadership. Despite fifteen years of black progress in office holding, voter registration among Atlanta blacks reaches only about half its potential.
The 1980 census shows that in Fulton County (a major part of the Fifth District) less than half of black youth live in two-parent homes. In black, female-headed households with children, the median annual income is $6,000, less than half that of similarly situated whites. The county’s $25,000 median income for white families is twice that of black families. One census tract in a black community in the Fifth District shows the median family income at $2,900. By contrast, the highest median family income in the Fifth ($53,000) is in a white neighborhood.
No single election will change these disparities and inequalities. They are a reminder of the challenge facing the Fifth District. The competition between Bond and Lewis has been uncomfortable for those who see them as pure symbols of the movement years. The campaign has created definite expectations–and hope –about the future. Despite the near-reverence for both men, it is only realistic to admit that the problems that face the Fifth and the country are much more resistant to symbolic and even electoral change than they seemed in the days of Movement victories.
Marilyn Davis teaches political science at Spelman College in Atlanta. Alex Willingham is research associate at the Southern Regional Council and a contributing editor of Southern Changes.