“The New Yorker” in Tuskegee, 1965

Fifty years ago this week, The New Yorker ran a lengthy treatment of voting rights struggles in Tuskegee, Alabama with the seriously understated title “A Break with Tradition.” The issue’s cover would also not belie the content: a Cote d’Azur terrace featuring a bottle of wine sitting on a little round cafe table, complete with checked table cloth, dominated overhead by a massive red awning. A million miles from Cote d’Azur, Tuskegee was a bitter battleground of Civil Rights. Here, in the home of the landmark gerrymandering case Gomillion v. Lightfoot in the late 1950s, a predominantly black Macon County was experiencing seismic shifts in its politics between that decision in 1960 and the 1965 Civil Rights Acts opening the polls to the county’s majority.

Tuskegee is an interesting case study. As the seat of Macon County, it is exemplary of Black Belt culture. Blacks outnumber whites, but whites had long ago worked to concentrate power and wealth in their own hands. However, this general paradigm discounts the presence of Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, famously led by Booker T. Washington from 1881 – 1915. Having the school (and a VA hospital) there changed the game entirely, by adding the element of highly educated, socially conscious, politically aware black intellectuals and their students to the local culture.

And the writer in 1965, Bernard Taper – who had written two articles about Gomillion for the magazine, both published in June 1961 – makes it clear right off the bat that these cognizant and competent individuals were the difference-makers. They weren’t dependent on the local white employers for their jobs, which meant they could stand up for what was right without fear of losing their livelihoods. They had the time to sit and wait in the registrar’s office day after day, forcing the hand of the local stalwart:

. . . the chairman of the Board of registrars, Wheeler Dyson, would put his head out of the door into the hallway where we sat and peer at the group of Negroes with a frown on his face. Then he would close the door again.

Where sheer intimidation had been the long-standing order of the day in the Deep South, this newer tactic was one latter-day effort to thwart voting-rights activists who had the law on their side:

The registrars were stalling the Negroes off by using a tiny office and administering complicated and time-consuming literacy tests which included the copying out by hand of long extracts from the United States Constitution.

In 1965, with the ruling in Gomillion and the Voting Rights Act both in place, the whites, who had never been denied political dominance over blacks, knew they were outnumbered: “Negro voters numbered 1,200 in the city of Tuskegee (pop. 6,700), compared to about 1,000 white voters, and for the county as a whole the figures were 3,400 Negro voters and 2,900 whites.” The result, after the elections: “the first bi-racial government in the rural Deep South.”

Taper explains that the black candidates and voters didn’t go for broke in their first foray. Taking a longer view, “with calculated restraint,” the newly empowered blacks put six of their own into public offices: “two to the City Council, one to the County Board of Revenue, one to the City-County Board of Education, and two as justices of the peace.” No mayor, no City Council majority, no state legislators, just an initial showing in local politics. The common white fear that blacks who could vote would take over the government in an irresponsible wave of power-grabs proved totally wrong. And Taper found that local white response was surprising too:

Most of the white people in Tuskegee, I gathered, have adjusted to the new state of affairs with considerably better grace than Mr. Dyson [who resigned as head registrar]. No exodus of white families had occurred, nor have there been mass resignations of city employees or, for that matter, any resignations whatever, though both of these eventualities were forecast before the elections.

No, at least on the surface, a slow, cautious cooperation simmered— though Charles Gomillion, the lead plaintiff in that important gerrymandering case, had his reservations: “The whites haven’t changed their attitudes— just their behavior,” he was quoted as saying. Yet, Gomillion was also honest about the reality on the ground:

And the truth is we are just beginners at this, by virtue of having been kept on the sidelines for so long, and we do have much to learn. So it seems proper to start slowly.

The elections that Taper wrote about were not the magical gateway to interracial political paradise. Tuskegee continued to struggle against the forces of segregation, including then-governor George Wallace who added his own touches to the already difficult scenario. Small gains were made, while pockets of resistance held fast.

The integration of Tuskegee High School was, for instance, a particularly sticky mess. A federal court ruling in 1963 ordered the “first public-school desegregation in Alabama” in Tuskegee, but Governor Wallace sent state troopers to stop school from opening on the first day.  Like so many communities in the rural Deep South, a “white academy” was formed – Macon Academy – “to which the Governor promised state funds,” which was (and is) illegal and couldn’t happen. Whites refused to register for the newly integrated school. But, as will happen, hardened ideals softened when reality didn’t waver; in the summer of 1964, “a group of white parents got in touch with several Negro parents and said they wanted to get together with them to work towards the reopening of Tuskegee High.” And so integration began.

That was fifty years ago – half a century – and while so much national and regional attention was heaped onto the anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery March earlier this year, many smaller local changes are worth noting for their significance, too. Say “Selma” almost anywhere in America and people will know what you’re talking about . . . but say “Gomillion” and people will say, Huh? Yes, the violent turmoil of Bloody Sunday and the dynamic personality of Martin Luther King, Jr. make for a better story than a college sociology professor suing over voting district lines or waiting patiently in a voter-registration office, but had folks like these in Tuskegee not done this, the Voting Rights Act wouldn’t have meant nearly as much. The realities of voting rights had to be put to the test, enacted and lived-out in hundreds of counties all over the South by people who viewed each other with skepticism and fear. That shouldn’t be forgotten either.

Today, Tuskegee’s political landscape is a complete one-eighty from the early 1960s. Looking at the city’s website: the mayor, Johnny Ford, who is black, was first elected in 1972, and the four-person city council is all-black. The city manager, fire chief and police chief are black. Clicking through the Government and City Services sections of Tuskegee’s website, all of the faces pictured are African American.

According to the most recent census, Tuskegee has about 9,000 people— 95.8% of them are black. But, as mark of its Black Belt past, only 74.9% of businesses are black-owned.

Today, only about 2% of Tuskegee’s population is white. Once, back in 1990s, my friend and I were paid to clean up a hunting lodge in the rural Macon County community of Hardaway, and coming back, his truck got a flat. The bolt on his spare was rusted in place, and we used the phone at a little store to call a tow. As the white tow-truck driver was bringing us into Tuskegee, he waved at another white driver who passed him and then said to us, “That’s the other white guy who lives in Tuskegee.” We didn’t laugh because we didn’t know whether he was joking or not.

And what about the schools? Tuskegee’s public Booker T. Washington High School is as integrated as one could expect in a town that is 96% black. That “white academy” founded in 1963 couldn’t keep up with changing times. Its new incarnation, Macon East Academy, has the following explanation on its website:

Early in the spring of 1995, with a declining school enrollment, the Foundation Membership, Administration and Board of Trustees of Macon Academy made an official decision to relocate Macon Academy from Tuskegee, Alabama to an area in east Montgomery County near the community of Cecil, Alabama. Many of the Macon County families were in favor of this move because there seemed to be no way to continue the institution at that location.

When the doors of Macon Academy in Tuskegee were finally closed, there were 62 students enrolled in the school. Approximately 45 of those made a commitment to attend the new school that would open under a new name.

We’re still a long way from Cote d’Azur down here. Back when Bernard Taper was coming south, Gomillion v. Lightfoot had changed the nation in 1960 and the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March moved the country forward again in 1965. Over the past fifty years, life in places like Tuskegee still has many of the same problems – poverty, lack of opportunity, inadequate resources – but some measure of self-determination seems to have been achieved there.

However, looking at the larger voting-rights picture, in June 2013, another writer for the The New Yorker, Eric Lewis, was conveying the at least partial undoing of those reforms, via Shelby County v. Holder, in “Five Justices in A Bubble: The Courts Step Back on Race.” The Shelby case was all about one Alabama county’s claims that portions of the Voting Rights Act should no longer be enforced, since the conditions have changed. The Supreme Court agreed. While some people in the South may like the decision, others of us who regard history not as the by-gone past, but as the road map to where we are now, can’t help but disagree.

NOTE: After this post was completed, the new issue of Harper’s arrived in the mail, and in it is a very good book review by Randall Kennedy on this same subject: “Old Poison, New Battles.” I recommend it highly as further reading.

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