Disrupters & interlopers: Charles Gomillion
To borrow the wording from his New York Times obituary in 1995, Dr. Charles Gomillion “led the fight that brought political power to the black majority in Tuskegee, Alabama.” Gomillion was a sociology professor and dean at Tuskegee Institute when he took on the Alabama legislature and its gerrymandered voting map of the Macon County seat in the late 1950s. His civil case, Gomillion v. Lightfoot, went all the way to the US Supreme Court.
Born in South Carolina in 1900, Charles Goode Gomillion left his inadequate African-American school at age 16 to attend Paine College, a historically black private school in Augusta, Georgia. He later came to Tuskegee Institute in 1928. According to the King institute’s webpage about him:
In the 1930s, Gomillion attempted to register to vote several times, starting in 1934, and was finally successful in 1939. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Gomillion, by then the dean of students at Tuskegee, worked to register voters, which prompted the state legislature to redraw the borders of the city in 1957 to maintain white political power.
In 1941, Gomillion founded the Tuskegee Civic Association, which worked to for Civil Rights causes. Its “Crusade for Citizenship” organized a boycott in 1957 and 1958 of segregationist-owned businesses. While the boycott was successful in putting economic pressure on white merchants, it also caused some businesses to leave Tuskegee.
It was efforts like these that led the Alabama legislature to redraw the voting district for Tuskegee from a square shape to the now-infamous 28-sided polygon that excluded all but twelve black citizens. The redistricting also omitted Tuskegee Institute entirely, which disallowed many professors and students from voting in local elections. So, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama:
Gomillion and other petitioners, black citizens of Alabama and residents (or former residents) of Tuskegee, alleged that the act violated the “due process” and “equal protection” clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. They claimed that the redrawn city boundaries disfranchised black voters; therefore, the act had a discriminatory purpose. In fact, the act’s author, [Samuel J.] Engelhardt, was executive secretary of the White Citizens’ Council of Alabama and an advocate of white supremacy.
After the case was dismissed by the usually pro-Civil Rights judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., and having that ruling upheld by the appeals court in New Orleans, Gomillion v. Lightfoot reached the US Supreme Court in October 1960. There, a unanimous decision stated that what had been done in Tuskegee was now allowable.
In his book, Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America, Frye Gaillard described Gomillion as “a slender, well-dressed man with high cheekbones and closely cropped hair— the very portrait, some people said, of a black intellectual. [ . . . ] He chafed at the racist condescension all around him— that pervasive assumption among many whites that they were inherently superior to people who were black. For an educated man like Charles Gomillion, it was an insult that cut all the way to his heart. [ . . . ] But his goal was an interracial democracy, not a black oligarchy that ruled like the whites.” Ultimately, a victory in the court case that bears his name was one step closer to that goal.
The Disrupters & Interlopers series highlights lesser-known individuals from Southern history whose actions, though unpopular or difficult, contributed to changing the old status quo. To read previous posts, click any of the links below: