Recalling South's other boycott

Jan. 19, 2013 @ 05:36 PM

The nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day to remember the civil rights leader’s contributions to the lives of all Americans. He came to national attention with the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.

On this holiday, it is also appropriate to remember another boycott that took place 40 miles east of Montgomery in Tuskegee.

In the mid-1950s, the population of Macon County, Ala. (home of Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, and the town of Tuskegee) was 84 percent black. But all of the city and county offices were held by whites.

Change was on the horizon, however. Civil rights legislation was being considered by the U.S. Congress. And blacks in Tuskegee had begun a voter registration drive to make more blacks eligible to vote in the next municipal election.

For decades, Alabama had kept most black residents off the voter registration rolls by various tactics, including a poll tax and by literacy tests.

The average educational level of blacks in Macon County was higher than that of whites, but the percent registered to vote was much lower, due to the way the “literacy” test was administered.

Nevertheless, to prevent the possibility of the election of black city officials, the Alabama legislature passed Act 140, which redrew the Tuskegee town boundaries. The town that had been laid out as a simple square became a misshapened “gerrymander.” Most important from the viewpoint of many white citizens, Tuskegee Institute and almost all black residents lived outside the town’s redrawn boundaries.

In 1957, a group of black citizens under the leadership of Charles Gomillion, a professor at Tuskegee Institute, launched an economic boycott of the white-owned stores in Tuskegee.

“If they did not want our vote, why should they have our money?” Gomillion asked.

King came to Tuskegee to add his prestige to the boycott. He expressed the spirit of the movement when he said, “You are not seeking to put the stores out of business but to put justice into business.”

Over the next four years, black residents of Tuskegee drove to neighboring towns and cities to shop, rather than patronize local merchants.

One Tuskegee department store owner told of greeting a former black customer who entered the store, “Can I show you a suit or some shirts today?” The response was, “No, sir. I just came in to pay off my charge account.”

Residents of Auburn, 20 miles away, saw cars and station wagons bearing Macon County license plates loaded with groceries at the local A&P or Piggly Wiggly.

The boycott had a devastating effect on the white merchants, forcing many out of business.

Meanwhile, Gomillion and 12 other Tuskegee residents filed a federal lawsuit against Tuskegee Mayor Phil Lightfoot and the city council, contending Act 140 violated their constitutional rights. The suit eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in November 1960 that the gerrymandering deprived the black voters of rights guaranteed by the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and sent the case back to the federal court in Alabama for trial.

In January 1961, federal Judge Frank M. Johnson ruled that the action redrawing the city boundaries was unconstitutional and restored them to their former shape.

This was not Johnson’s only ruling related to race. Earlier, he had joined with the majority on a three-judge panel to strike down the Montgomery law imposing segregation on city buses. Later, he would rule that civil rights advocates had a right to march from Selma to Montgomery.

Nor was it Gomillion’s only action to achieve equal rights for black citizens. For more than 30 years, Gomillion was a strong advocate for equal treatment of all citizens under the law. As early as 1941 he had stood up for a young Tuskegee Institute professor when the local election registrar blocked his application to vote. After the gerrymandering case was settled, Gomillion continued to press for changes that recognized the rights of blacks.

As important as court decisions were, the cases would never have been tried except for the everyday citizens who stood up for their rights, citizens such as Charles Gomillion, Rosa Parks and numerous individuals for whom there is no memorial but “whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a day of remembrance for them as well as for the better-known civil rights leader for whom the day is named.

Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.