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Black citizens boycott white merchants for U.S. voting rights, Tuskegee, Alabama, 1957-1961
In 1957, in an effort to frustrate increasing black voter registration and the threat of losing a white voter majority, Alabama state senator Sam Engelhardt sponsored Act 140, which proposed to transform the Tuskegee City boundaries from a square into a twenty-eight sided shape resembling a “seahorse” that included every single one of the 600 white voters and excluded all but 5 of the 400 black voters.
Engelhardt, a plantation owner and executive secretary of the Alabama Association of White Citizens Councils, explained, “The folks up there feel like I do. Civil rights legislation is going to pass the United States Senate either this year or the next and we’re going to be prepared for it. We couldn’t stand seeing a Negro in the Alabama Legislature.”
For years, Alabama had quite successfully discouraged and thwarted black voter registration, but with new civil rights legislation threatening to make disenfranchisement more difficult, the Alabama legislature decided to deliver a preemptory assault on black self-determination. Despite appeals by prominent African-American community members to the City Council, the County Commission, the Alabama Legislature’s Committee on Local Legislation, and even a direct appeal to the voters in an open letter in the Montgomery Advertiser, on June 14 the Senate unanimously approved the bill, and on June 21 the House followed suit with an 80-0 vote.
In a city where the black population was more than quadruple the white population (5,397 to 1,310), Frank Oalin, a local paint store manager and city council member, insisted “It’s a matter of self-preservation; Negroes were about to out-vote us and take over control of the city.” Senator Englehardt proudly boasted, “I gerrymandered those niggers right out of town…If that civil rights commission comes down here and forces mass registration of unqualified Negroes, there’ll be bloodshed. Why, we’d have niggers in office. Can you imagine being arrested by a nigger sheriff?”
In fact, though, the educational level of Macon County blacks exceeded whites because of the influence of the Tuskegee Institute, and the Chicago Daily Tribune went as far as saying that “Any educational test for voting, no matter how rigorous, if fairly applied, would probably result in the enfranchising of more Negroes than whites in (Macon) County.”
According to Charles G. Gomillion, a dean at the Tuskegee Institute and president of the Tuskegee Civic Association (TCA), this was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Already frustrated by the Macon County Board of Registrar’s failure to register black voters, Gomillion and several other black leaders decided to initiate a merchant boycott. Just four days after the House vote, 3,000 blacks gathered at Butler Chapel AME Zion Church to join the “Crusade for Citizenship” and listen to Gomillion urge a “Trade with Friends” boycott of local white merchants. He vowed, “We are going to buy goods and services from those who help us, from those who make no effort to hinder us, from those who recognize us as first-class citizens” and not “with those who would seek to devour us.”
The next week, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to show his support for the boycott by speaking to 2,000 blacks at the Washington Chapel AME Zion Church, stating, “You are not seeking to put the stores out of business but to put justice into business.”
“If white citizens here feel Negroes shouldn’t vote, then Negro citizens feel their money should not be spent with these folks. We prefer to spend our money with people who might help us, or who at least are in a poorer position to hurt us directly, white people in Montgomery, for instance,” Gomillion asserted. Similarly, Dr. E.H. Foster, president of the Tuskegee Institute, judged “Now that they don’t want us in the city of Tuskegee, I have no reason to trade there.”
Within weeks the boycott had plunged local sales by more than 75% and put the gerrymandering case in the national spotlight, Consequently, Alabama officials began an effort to suppress it. By the end of July, state attorney-general and future governor John Patterson led multiple raids against offices of the Tuskegee Civic Association in an effort to discourage the boycott.
On July 29, Patterson warned blacks against violating Alabama’s antiboycott law. By August 16, Patterson succeeded in obtaining an injunction against Gomillion and the TCA, after having secured an injunction banning the NAACP from operating in Alabama the previous year.
Gomillion appreciated the irony: “If we stay away from their churches, schools, and playgrounds, we are wise and understanding Negroes. But if we stay away from their stores, we are criminals…If they did not want our vote, why should they have our money?”
Despite the injunction, the boycott continued. By the end of 1957 over 100 white businesses were forced to close their doors and many other businesses and dealerships were reporting drop-offs of 40, 50, and even 60 percent in sales.
In spite of the economic turmoil caused by the boycott, the Tuskegee City Council unanimously voted to deny a petition signed by over 700 blacks, which requested that the city re-annex the territory removed from its limits by Act 140. In addition, Senator Englehardt continued his self-proclaimed crusade to “split Negro political power” by proposing a constitutional amendment which would enable the legislature to “abolish Macon County,” which was 84% black (25,771 blacks to 4,677 whites), in order to dilute the black population amongst the surrounding, predominately white counties.
On December 17, the amendment was approved by Alabamians 58,824-40,710, with the New York Times reporting that “Advocates of the change said it was necessary to prevent Negro control of the county government in view of Federal civil rights legislation to use national authority to guarantee voting rights” while the TCA alleged that the “proposal was a device to ‘maintain an undemocratic system of social relationships, a system which cannot be justified morally or politically.’”
As the months wore on, the TCA continued to hold weekly mass meetings of 1,000-2,000 people at various Negro churches in order “to keep up the spirit of resistance.” Then, in June 1958, an Alabama judge struck down the injunction against the TCA, noting that Americans have a right to trade with whom they choose and ruling that Attorney General Patterson had failed to substantiate his charges of coercion and intimidation against the organization.
Two months later, on August 4, Gomillion and twelve other disenfranchised black voters filed a federal suit against Tuskegee Mayor Phil Lightfoot and the City Council contending that Act 140 violated black voters’ constitutional protections.
By the end of 1959, participation in the boycott had dropped noticeably, but on February 27, 1960, 400 students at the Tuskegee Institute reinvigorated the campaign with a peaceful march in downtown Tuskegee, followed by a meeting two nights later deciding to tighten the boycott to make it “100 per cent effective.”
Then, on November 14, 1960, after several lower courts ruled that issues regarding gerrymandering did not fall within the judiciary’s purview, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Gomillion v. Lightfoot was entitled to a full trial to determine if the gerrymandering had the effect of disenfranchising black voters. Eight justices found that such an effect violated the Fifteenth Amendment, (Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.), and one, voting in concurrence, found it violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.
On February 17, 1961, Federal Judge Frank M. Johnson ruled that Act 140 did have the effect of disenfranchising black voters and was thus unconstitutional and issued an order prohibiting officials from enforcing the act. Several weeks later, Judge Johnson delivered another sweeping victory for Macon County blacks by ruling that the Board of Registrars was actively and deliberately obstructing black voter registration, and ordered an overhaul of the registrars’ operating procedures.
With these victories the four-year boycott on Tuskegee merchants came to an end.