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Voting Rights Act Was a ‘Revolution’ in Lowndes County

November 3, 1985 GMT

HAYNEVILLE, Ala. (AP) _ Twenty years ago, John Hulett walked through the front door of the Lowndes County Courthouse for the first time in his life and nervously signed his name on a voter registration form.

An everyday act these days. But then it was a daring deed, one that was to bring revolutionary change to the residents of the ″black belt″ of Alabama and eventually transform Hulett from sharecropper serf to sheriff.

″I was the first black to register,″ recalled the 56-year-old sheriff from his office in an antebellum courthouse built by slaves. He and a black minister had gone to the courthouse unannounced, to defy tradition.

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On the day Hulett signed his name back in the violent spring of 1965, he became not only the first registered black voter in Lowndes County since Reconstruction, but also a harbinger of dramatic change throughout the South.

″When I tell my kids how it used to be here, they think I’m telling them a fairytale, or something,″ said Hulett, who grew up when everything in Hayneville was segregated. Blacks were banned from using the courthouse’s front door.

Lowndes County is historic territory in the civil rights struggle. It was here that Stokely Carmichael first used the Black Panther symbol, initially as a beacon to guide black voters to the polls.

It is the county where Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights volunteer from Detroit, was murdered by Ku Klux Klan night riders on March 25, 1965, the night the historic Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march ended.

That August, a white New England seminary student, Jonathan Daniels, was shot and killed outside a Hayneville grocery store moments after his release from jail following efforts to organize a black boycott of local merchants.

A prominent white resident was charged with murder but acquitted after saying he thought he had seen a weapon in Daniels’ hand. Witnesses said Daniels was holding nothing but a dime with which he planned to buy a soft drink.

Those days now seem far away, even to Hulett. Far away - until news reports remind him of the current anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

″It brings it all back,″ he said.

The news reports from South Africa also prod the memory of Atlanta City Councilman John Lewis, who passed through Lowndes County on the march to Montgomery.

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″I felt as though I was seeing a re-run of something that happened in this country 20 years ago,″ said Lewis, 45, co-founder and former president of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

″I was particularly struck by a scene in which several women were carrying ‘One Man, One Vote’ signs. I carried a similiar sign and used that same phrase in my speech during the march on Washington, back in 1963.″

Behind his desk, tacked to the wall, is an old Life magazine cover showing a much younger and thinner Lewis leading a line of marchers at Selma’s infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge. There, on March 7, 1965, mounted officers clubbed, tear-gassed and bull-whipped 600 blacks trying to march to Montgomery, weeks before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. successfully led tens of thousands into the state capital.

Another picture, a glossy photograph taken seconds after the cover picture, shows Lewis lying on the ground, being beaten by troopers.

″You know,″ he said, looking at the photo, ″when I see pictures of that 1965 voting rights march I find it hard to believe it really happened in this country, and especially over something like the right to vote.″

Now, two decades after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, 1965, Lewis says it is abundantly clear to him this country underwent a successful revolution.

″I just hope the people of South Africa can move forward in a similar spirit of non-violence,″ he said. ″That’s what made what happened here possible. We still have a long way to go, but if you don’t think there’s been any change in this country, just visit Lowndes County, Ala.

″When we marched through Lowndes County 20 years ago, on our way from Selma to Montgomery, there was not a single, registered black voter in the county, even though 80 percent of the people there were black.″

Today blacks, who account for 84 percent of the 11,000 county residents, comprise 80 percent of the county’s registered voters.

Similar changes swept the rest of the South. In 1965, an estimated 2.2 million blacks were registered to vote and the 11 states of the old Confederacy had fewer than 100 elected black officials. Now, the South has 5.6 million black voters and some 3,200 elected black officials.

Most of 10,000 blacks who lived in the county in 1965 were share croppers, Lewis said.

″None of them was registered to vote because, in addition to the literacy test and poll tax Alabama had then, Lowndes County also had a special clause which required a white person to vouch for the good character of a black,″ he said.

″Given the way things were back then, no white in his right mind would have vouched for a black.″

Lewis returned to Lowndes County a few months ago, on the 20th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march.

″I found that the county now has a black sheriff, a black school superintendent, a black majority on the school board and a black majority on the county commission,″ he said.

″There has been profound change there as well as all across the South. There’s a pride in the people now that just wasn’t there before.″

The sheriff agreed.

″I’ve gotten a lot of white votes over the years,″ Hulett said. ″When I was first elected, some white residents said they were going to have to arm themselves, but things have reached the point now where the voters don’t care what color their sheriff is; they just want somebody who can do the job.″

Despite the positive changes, however, an edge remains to race relations in the county, and some black leaders worry about the Reagan administration’s messages on civil rights enforcement.

Eli Seaborn, the county school superintendent, described the de facto segregation that still exists.

″We’ve got about 2,900 children in our public school system and less than 15 of them are white,″ he said. ″The county’s other 400 or so white children attend private schools in the county or go to schools in neighboring counties.″

Seaborn said the white flight from schools not only reduced state aid to Lowndes County but also robbed the school system in other, more subtle ways.

″These black and white kids need to get together, need to get to know each other,″ he said. ″Yes, we’ve had a lot of changes here, but so far it hasn’t happened the way it should have.

″The courthouse is integrated, but we still attend segregated churches, schools and social clubs. In an ideal society, prople would get together because they want to, not because they have to, and so far, that hasn’t happened in Lowndes County.″

In addition, the past two decades of civil rights progress are endangered, say leaders like Lewis and Geraldine Thompson of the Voter Education Project, by a revival of practices such as at-large elections and gerrymandered voting districts in which white voters have greater sway.

Many leaders feel that the U.S. Justice Department, under President Reagan, has dropped enforcement of civil rights laws as a top priority. They cite the administration’s unsuccessful effort to get tax-exempt status for private schools, like Bob Jones University in South Carolina, which have racially discriminatory policies; its rejected nomination of William Bradford Reynolds as an assistant U.S. Attorney General after his lackluster stint as head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, and recent federal prosecutions of eight voting officials in Alabama. One was convicted.

Julian Bond, a Georgia state senator, said the charges brought against the voting officers were ″a vicious conspiracy directed from the White House ... (whose) goal is the suppression and destruction of a budding political movement in the black belt.″

Lewis said the present political climate reminded him, in some ways, of what South Africa’s blacks are up against.

″They’ve got the whole force of government against them,″ he said. ″We felt, back then, that we at least had a Justice Department that would act as a sympathetic referee in our struggle for human and civil rights.″

Lowndes County’s gains in civil rights have not been mirrored by its economy. It is one of the nation’s 10 poorest counties, with more than 45 percent of its 12,000 residents living beneath the poverty level. Lowndes also has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the United States.

But still, by some barometers, life in Lowndes has improved.

″Things are so much better for us now because of equalization of services in areas such as housing, water and roads,″ Hulett said. ″It used to be that most blacks in the county lived in bad houses and ate poor food, and almost no black person lived on a paved road in Lowndes County. Things are simply better here now.″