Charles G. Gomillion
By Robert J. Norrell
Vol. 17, No. 3-4, 1995 pp. 14-15
A few weeks ago I lost my hero–Charles Goode Gomillion, a 95-year-old man of whom relatively few people will have heard. But for me he embodied true greatness, and the meaning of his life speaks clearly to us today.
A sociology professor at Tuskegee University, Gomillion led African-Americans in that small Black Belt town in a thirty-year struggle to gain the right to vote. In the late 1930s he began to organize professors to challenge the local board of registrars, which allowed only a handful of African-Americans to go the polls.
Whites feared that if a significant part of the eighty- percent black majority got the franchise, white political control would be lost. Gomillion and his group confronted a solid wall of white opposition, but it was no pistol-packing, Rebel-flag-waving mob as one could find in some parts of Alabama during the civil rights years. They met a genteel dismissiveness– enunciated in the elongated vowels of the Black Belt aristocrat–toward any black interest.
When well-educated black people tried to register to vote they were told they did not own enough property. If they owned property, they were told they did not know enough about the U.S. Constitution. If they met both prerequisites, black people were required to have two whites “vouch” for their good character. If a black person somehow got vouchers, the registrars often lost his or her application.
One day in 1941 Gomillion, frustrated over the registrars’ dishonesty to a young professor, looked the all-powerful county probate judge in the eye and issued an ultimatum: Register this man to vote or we’ll sue you in federal court. At that moment the civil rights movement began in Tuskegee.
For the next twenty five years, Gomillion and his Tuskegee Civic Association kept an unrelenting pressure on local officials to register qualified blacks. It was fourteen years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. It proved to be a tedious, frustrating struggle. Through the 1940s and ’50s, Gomillion’s group pursued the registrars as they lied to applicants, hid from them, rejected them for no cause. Gomillion was committed for the long haul. As a child he had adopted as his personal motto, “Keep everlastingly at it.” A colleague of his told me years later: “Gomillion is a very obstinate man. He will follow anything through.”
That obstinance finally paid off. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 created a commission to investigate denials of voting rights, and the very first place scrutinized was Tuskegee. It was hardly an accident. The methodical Gomillion and his organization had kept a record of every black person who had tried to register for the past fifteen years, and thus they knew everyone who had been turned down.
When the commission held nationally televised hearings in Montgomery in 1958, a parade of professors recounted the registrars’ shenanigans. National opinion registered shock at such undemocratic behavior. In the meantime city officials in Tuskegee, alarmed at the small but steady rise in black voters, had gotten the Alabama Legislature in 1957 to redraw the city limits to put out almost all of the town’s 400 black voters.
The gerrymander was the final insult to Gomillion and his group. They organized a three-year boycott of city businesses, and they sued the city to reclaim their voting rights. In 1960 the United States Supreme Court ruled in Gomillion v. Lightfoot that a gerrymander designed explicitly to deny black people the right to vote was unconstitutional. The case brought Gomillion a moment of fame, but he never registered much interest in it.
He was focused on a new suit brought by the Justice Department under legislation shaped by the testimony taken earlier about Tuskegee discrimination, which resulted in Judge Frank M. Johnson’s angry 1961 order telling the Tuskegee registrars exactly who they would register and exactly where he would put them if they failed to obey him.
Blacks soon gained a political majority in Tuskegee, and in 1964 they elected the first black city councilmen. They had gained political power before the passage of the
1965 Voting Rights Act, which for the South as a whole was the starting point for black political power.
But the triumph of democracy would be bittersweet for Gomillion. He was committed to interracialism, which meant in the 1960s he wanted to share power with whites in Tuskegee–even though they had refused all along to share power with him. Every February during the 1940s and 1950s, while the registrars were visiting one indignity after another on black people, Gomillion and his organization had held “Race Relations Sunday,” at which they observed the need for racial reconciliation. Usually no more than one or two whites showed up, but he kept at it year after year because he believed his community would be made better by the cooperation of blacks and whites.
Interracialism became a hard sell to some African-Americans in Tuskegee in the mid-1960s, because it seemed naive and unmanly to share power with segregationists. Gomillion was challenged by both local activists who wanted a turn at the throttle and Tuskegee Institute students who thought his interracialism was out of date, Uncle Tomish.
The challenge angered many older activists who felt unappreciated for their long years of work, but perhaps the least bothered was Gomillion. He saw that the times had turned against his leadership and he quietly stepped aside and watched Tuskegee become a black-run town by the early 1970s. That was when I met him and began to try to understand the meaning of his life.
It ultimately dawned on me that I thought of him in heroic terms–much like how I think of Abraham Lincoln. Gomillion was an American hero, a man who believed in something bigger than himself–the ideals of freedom, equality and democracy–and worked for them with no guarantee of success, no assurance of favor, no expectation of fame.
Charles Gomillion lived a long life and witnessed vast improvements in American race relations, but all his 95 years were seasons of conflict between blacks and whites, and they ended on a day I was depressed about race in America, the day after the O.J. Simpson verdict. My hero would not want me paralyzed by pessimism. “Keep ever-lastingly at it” is the message of his life.
Americans must keep at the business of improving race relations even as we endure one of our periodic surges of suspicion and alienation. Blacks and whites must act together and look for common ground, but with the understanding that we are unlikely ever to see things exactly alike.
There is no guarantee that race relations will get better tomorrow, and it’s a sure bet we won’t solve the problem. But the life of Charles Gomillion shows how we can face the future.
Robert J. Norrell is professor of history at the University of Alabama and author of Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee. He wrote this article for The Birmingham News.