Fifty-one years ago today, on December 17, 1957, what was first called Amendment 18 was put to a public vote on Alabama’s statewide ballot. The amendment would create a committee to study whether it would be feasible to reduce or do away with Macon County, home to the historic city of Tuskegee and to Booker T. Washington’s infamous Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). When it passed – and it did pass, with about 60% of the votes cast – it became Amendment 132 of Alabama’s state constitution, and a portion of it reads like this:
The legislature may, with or without the notice prescribed by section 106 of this Constitution, by a majority vote of each house, enact general or local laws altering or re-arranging the existing boundaries, or reducing the area of, or abolishing, Macon county, and transferring its territory, or any part thereof, its jurisdiction and functions, to contiguous counties. Toward this end, there shall be a committee composed of the senators and representatives who now represent the counties of Bullock, Elmore, Lee, Macon, Montgomery, and Tallapoosa in the legislature, to study and determine the feasibility of abolishing Macon county or reducing its area, and to formulate the legislation deemed necessary for such purpose. The committee shall select a chairman and a vice-chairman from among their number, shall meet on the call of the chairman, and shall report its findings, conclusions, and recommendations to the legislative council on or before the first Friday in October, 1958; and the legislative council shall submit such report and any legislation proposed by the committee to the legislature at the 1959 regular session thereof. The committee shall be discharged upon the filing of its report with the legislative council.
The rest of its text deals mainly with how the committee members will be paid for doing this work.
Backing up a bit, it is important to understand that the decision to eliminate Macon County was not arbitrary. The situation began when the Civil Rights Rights Act of 1957 allowed small numbers of black citizens in and around the city of Tuskegee to begin registering to vote. Yet, the situation really began three years earlier, when the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of school integration in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The Montgomery Bus Boycott then followed the Brown decision in 1955 and 1956, and to be sure, segregationist whites saw the writing on the wall. Something had to be done to maintain the old order.
First, like-minded white people redrew Tuskegee’s city map to include white voters and exclude black voters. You can’t vote in city elections if you don’t live in the city. However, Tuskegee University professor Charles Gomillion sued over the obviously gerrymandered re-districting plan, and his case Gomillion v. Lightfoot went all the way to the US Supreme Court—and he won, though that victory came later, in 1960. So, if the city-boundary plan didn’t work, something else had to be done to maintain the old order. Amendment 18 was proffered: let’s alter or eliminate the whole county.
On December 11, less than a week before the election, the Montgomery Advertiser‘s George Prentice reported this:
The amendment proposes to create a commission to study the feasibility of such step and would also make it possible for the county to be erased in future by simple act of the legislature.
According to previous plans, the county would be divided among five surrounding counties— Montgomery, Bullock, Lee, Tallapoosa, and Elmore.
However, despite the seeming importance of such a decision, Prentice reported that people appeared not to be all that worried about it. Not elected officials or ordinary citizens.
Amendment 18 passed and was ratified by a statewide vote of 51,748 for and 36,820 against, according to the Macon History website. What may be even stranger than a state voting to abolish a whole county is that fact that the measure received a majority of votes in Macon County, where despite a majority-black population, “white voters outnumbered them 2 to 1.” Yet, it also must be considered: as is typical of Alabama elections, voter turnout was only 18%.
Of course, the plan didn’t go far. If you look at a map of Alabama today, you’ll see Macon County in the eastern part of the state, nestled among Montgomery, Tallapoosa, and Bullock. However, despite the Gomillion’s victory in the courts and the segregationists’ failure in their committee, Tuskegee continued to suffer racial strife throughout the 1960s and ’70s. In 1961 and 1965, The New Yorker ran long-form articles about it, and in 1973, The New York Times reported in “Tuskegee, as a Southern Model of Racial Harmony, Isn’t Working” that “many civil rights advocates are worried that they long-time dream of making Tuskegee a Deep South model of bi-racial cooperation might turn into a nightmare.”