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Fayette County, TN, African Americans form tent city for U.S. voting rights, 1960-1962
While the U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled against denying citizens from participation in elections, de facto racism in the country’s South kept countless African Americans from casting votes well into the 20th century. Despite the fact that African Americans represented roughly 70% of Fayette County, Tennessee’s population in 1960, before 1959 fewer than a dozen had voted. In contrast to other southern states, Tennessee had none of the poll taxes or literacy tests that would formally restrict voting. James F. Estes, one of Tennessee’s few black lawyers, became fully aware of low black registration while representing Burton Dodson in 1959. Eighteen years prior, a now 70-year old Dodson had allegedly shot and killed a white man. What struck Estes, as well as John McFerren and Harpman Jameson, was the entirely white jury--drawn from the County’s registered voters--that would ultimately decide Dodson’s guilt. Following the conviction, Estes encouraged McFerren, Harpman, and others to begin what would become the first black voter registration drive in the rural South.
McFerren and Harpman soon began to register voters and, by the fall of 1959, a small group of black voters was prepared to participate in the county’s Democratic primary. When they went to vote, however, an official primary announcement informed them that only white Democrats could cast their votes. In response, McFarren and Harpman along with other allies formed the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League, Inc (FCCWL). Working with the FCCWL, Estes filed a lawsuit with the federal district court contesting the primary’s legality. On November 16th, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the Fayette County Democratic Executive Committee under the Civil Rights Act of 1957, prompting an FBI investigation. Claiming objection to federal involvement in elections and hoping to deter any further elections, the Fayette County election commission resigned. In April of 1960, a federal judge overturned the primary in a consent judgment that also put a legal end to all-white elections in both Fayette and neighboring Haywood County.
Throughout the legal proceedings, the FCCWL and other African Americans in the community had been registering voters. Hundreds lined up at the registration office, where they were accosted by white Courthouse workers and waited on by a single registrar. In May, as a result of struggles in Fayette County and across the nation, President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which put in place formal penalties for obstructing any citizen’s right to vote. It would still take years of work on the part of organizers and individuals until voting in the South and the rest of the country would become what it is today.
By the spring of 1960, 1000 African Americans in Fayette County were registered to vote. In response, the county’s White Citizens Council, controlled by a handful of politically and economically influential white families, distributed a list of registered black voters and their white allies to local business. Those on the list were unable to buy food or gasoline, or take out bank loans. Some had their insurance policies cancelled and were fired from their jobs. Not only did the embargo restrict individual families, but it also presented a serious challenge to the county’s black sharecroppers who relied on local business’s supplies for their livelihood. New York Post reporter and former FDR staffer Ted Poston got a hold of the blacklist the WCC denied creating and wrote a six-part expose on the embargo. In September of 1960, the Department of Justice brought charges against 27 businesses and 2 banks in neighboring Haywood County, which was also affected by the embargo. Also in September white landowners evicted those on the list off of their land. A number of local African Americans lived on property owned by white landowners, many of whom were either involved with or sympathetic to the WCC.
By late fall, more and more black voters were being forced off their land. Shepherd Towles offered his farm as a temporary home for the displaced voters. An anonymous white merchant, whose name remains a secret to this day, either sold or donated 14 canvas Army tents to the FCCWL to be pitched on Towles’ property. Residents began referring to the ad-hoc community as the “Fayette County Freedom Village”, later to be known simply as Tent City. As demand grew, Gertrude Beasley sheltered families on her land as well, which in turn became known as a second, larger Tent City. Altogether, 345 families were displaced, though not all of them took refuge in the Tent Cities. For two years, the sites would house people as the FCCWL and other community members continued to fight for the right to vote and be treated equally. November of 1960 brought the first election in which African Americans could vote. The result was the first Republican Fayette County since Reconstruction. In December, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division filed another lawsuit under the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to put an end to the evictions. The charges indicted 45 landowners, 24 merchants, and a bank for their refusal of business to those on the blacklist, in particular black voters. Though it wouldn’t be until 1962 that a consent agreement was reached in which landowners agreed to stop the practice, on December 30th a restraining order blocked the eviction of 400 African Americans due to a ruling in the Haywood County suit mentioned above.
Even if the voters had land to live on, however, they still needed food, water and other supplies that became increasingly hard to come by as more and more people were displaced. Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver asked the Red Cross to step in to provide aid, but local chapters contended there was no need. Labor unions including the Teamsters, AFL-CIO, and UAW provided supplies and transportation to the ersatz communities, while the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Quakers, the Southern Conference Education Fund and the National Baptist Convention helped to bring national attention to the situation. John and Viola McFerren, founding members of the FCCWL, went on national speaking tours to publicize and raise money for life in the Tent Cities. In August, the NAACP mobilized its 350,000 members for a consumer’s boycott of the Texaco, Gulf, Esso and Amoco oil companies for going along with the WCC blacklist. National recognition brought with it help from countless, nameless sympathizers across the country. Charlie Butts, a student at Oberlin College in Ohio, worked with the FCCWL’s secretary Minnie Jameson to publish The League Link, a newsletter with information about marches, registrations and other events. Because of pressure from the people of Fayette and Haywood counties, as well as those organizations and individuals acting in solidarity with them, President John F. Kennedy mandated the federal government to provide necessary supplies to residents of the Tent Cities in June 1961.
The new year also brought internal divisions within the FCCWL. Amid allegations of corruption, a split between chairman John McFerren and President Scott Franklin led to the creation of two separate groups: Franklin’s, which retained the same name, and McFerren and other FCCWL founders’ “Original” FCCWL, which provided the majority of aid and political organizing for the remainder of the campaign. Finally, in July of 1962, the federal district court formally prohibited the use of economic pressure to discourage black citizens from voting. While the Tent Cities remained until 1963, residents began moving into low-income houses. The “Original” FCCWL (“the League”) continued to, with the help of a number of College students, register voters until 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1965, which put a legal end to formal and informal voter discrimination, undoubtedly owes its passage to the work of organizers in and residents of Fayette and Haywood County and their allies.