Voting Rights On Trial Again in Alabama
By Anne Braden
Vol. 20, No. 2, 1998 pp. 17-18
Connie Tyree is a thirty-six-year-old single mother and grandmother in Greene County, Alabama, who cares for three children and is a volunteer community activist. In 1994, she helped 249 absentee voters cast their ballots.
This year, Tyree cannot help anybody vote, and she cannot even vote herself. Instead, after years of community service untouched by any trouble with the law, she faces thirty-three months in prison; she was convicted in federal court in Birmingham of conspiracy to commit voter fraud. She is free now on bond, pending appeal, but a court order bars her from election activity.
Tyree is a victim of a new attack against activists working for voting rights and fair representation for African Americans in the Alabama Black Belt. Twelve people have been indicted-eight in Greene County, and two each in Wilcox and Hale counties. These are Black-majority counties, where African Americans have won control of local governing bodies.
The two indicted in Wilcox have pled guilty to misdemeanors to avoid jail time and the burden of a trial. A trial of the Hale County defendants is set for August. In Greene County, Commissioner Frank “Pinto” Smith has also been sentenced to thirty three months and removed from office. The others charged here will probably be tried in the fall. All are activists in the Alabama New South Coalition (ANSC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which organize for African-American political power.
A group of the nation’s top civil rights leaders met June 11 with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to ask the Justice Department to investigate the government’s activities in the Black Belt and to put a stop to the ” intimidation of African American voters.” State Senator Hank Sanders of Selma, Alabama led the delegation, which included NAACP President Julian Bond, NAACP Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Elaine Jones, and Martin Luther King III, the new president of the SCLC, which his father co-founded. Congressman Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.) and staff members representing Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who helped arrange the meeting, participated. And, Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, co-chair of the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice (SOC) and co-publisher of the Greene County Democrat John Zippert took part by teleconference. Sanders said after the meeting, “It was clear to me that they were listening to us, and we were able to say what needed to be said.”
In a briefing paper presented to Reno and Assistant Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr., leaders pointed out that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) questioning of voters has produced a dramatic reduction in voter turnout. In the June 2, 1998 first primary election, overall voter turnout declined to 3,928 from 4,691 in the comparable election in 1994, despite the fact that the number of registered voters increased during the four-year period. Most striking was the decline in absentee ballots filed, from 1,118 in the 1994 first primary election, to 147 absentee ballots cast on June 2.
Absentee voting is always a major factor here because many voters are elderly and shut-in and many work outside the county. The activities that brought indictments against Tyree and others consisted of helping relatives, friends, and neighbors apply for, fill out, and submit absentee ballots-all legal endeavors. But investigators searched for people who would say an application or ballot had been filled out or changed without their permission.
Candidates supported by black voters have been hurt by the decline in turnout. For example, the incumbent prosecutor, Barrown Lankster, the first African American to hold the post, lost by 256 votes to the white prosecutor he ousted in the previous election.
This struggle began in the 1960s. After the people’s movement won the right to vote in a bloody encounter on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, the national spotlight moved away from the South. But in the Alabama Black Belt, African Americans proceeded to register voters and organize them. By the late 1970s, there were Black-majority governing bodies in five West Alabama counties.
Alarm bells went off among the white power structure
that had always controlled the politics and economics of the Black Belt-and of Alabama. In the mid-1980s, in an attack similar to the current one, 212 voter fraud charges were brought against eight Black Belt organizers. Not one felony charge held up in court (see “Return to the Black Belt,” p. 19).
That attack boomeranged. People in the Black Belt fought back and organized a stronger political movement, with support coming from across the country.
And people went on voting. In most Black Belt elections, the turnout is a phenomenal 70 percent. “In Greene County, we think it’s low if it’s 70 percent,” says Booker T. Cooke, Jr., who is under indictment. “We usually get 80 or 85 percent.”
A chief architect of the 1980s indictments was Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, now U.S. Senator from Alabama, and then U.S. District Attorney in Mobile. Sessions, who comes from the old Black Belt power structure, also launched the current investigation before running for the Senate.
The indictments are part of a multi-pronged strategy. The old power structure set up a committee to counter ANSC, called Citizens for a Better Greene County, which includes some African Americans. There are ongoing efforts to pass laws that make voting more difficult, challenges to redistricting maps that have provided fairer representation, constant “investigations” of Black elected officials, and media reports that picture these officials as dishonest and incapable of managing government. Senator Hank Sanders notes that the many-faceted assault is ominously like the attacks that drove Blacks from office during the terror that followed Reconstruction in the last century.
For African Americans in Greene County, changes over the last thirty years are more than symbolic. This spring, people from diverse organizations-including the Southern Regional Council-took part in a caravan through Greene County to show support for voters. One thing we noticed was the attractive housing developments. Hundreds of new housing units have been built since Blacks took the reins of government and got federal grants.
“We used to live in dilapidated shacks without inside plumbing,” says Sarah Duncan, an activist since the 1960s who has registered hundreds of voters. Greene is still one of the poorest counties in the nation (see table on page 6, and although Blacks make up 80 percent of the population, more than 80 percent of the land is owned by whites.
Some small industry has come, bringing a limited number of construction jobs. Many African Americans work in government. There is a new high school. Water and sewer services extend to homes never reached before. A new health clinic serves six counties. And there is an African American bank, an activity center for the community, extensive cultural activity, and a courthouse named for Reverend William McKinley Branch, one of the county’s first black elected officials.
“Black people used to be afraid to go to the courthouse,” says Duncan. “Now we walk the streets without fear.”
“Almost 1,000 of the 1,400 plus people who voted by absentee ballot in the Greene County general election in 1994 have been questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” states the report to the Attorney General. When three African-American churches were burned in Greene County, FBI agents approached voters to ask about these fires, then questioned them about absentee ballots. As yet no one has been indicted for the church burnings.
In the Tyree-Smith case, of the hundreds of voters they assisted, investigators found only seven ballots to question. Trial witnesses told what the FBI said to some of the people they questioned. For example: “Michael, you are in trouble, you need a lawyer, you may go to jail.” Some of the government’s witnesses changed their stories at the trial. Willie Carter, who was in jail for selling cocaine when he was questioned by the FBI, told the Grand Jury he had never voted absentee. But he testified later that he gave “Pinto” Smith permission to apply for an absentee ballot for him.
“They targeted our most vulnerable citizens,” says Laddi Jones, who covered the trial for the Greene County Democrat, a Black-owned community newspaper.
State and federal investigators have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on this investigation. Essentially, it is an effort to deal with a political struggle by using criminal charges-which undermines the democratic process itself.
A quote from elderly activist Daisy Nixon, “I’ll vote on,” became a rallying call during the 1980s attack. Although she has died, that spirit lives on. “We won’t stop now,” says Sarah Duncan. “I want my children and grandchildren to be able to live in Greene County and have a good life here.” Those of us who visited the area recently believe that spirit will prevail again, but again the people here need the support of justice-minded people everywhere.
Anne Braden is co-chair of the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice (SOC) and a Life Fellow of the Southern Regional Council. She was deeply involved in the defense of Black Belt voting rights in the 1980s.