Gerrymandering & the Attempted Elimination of Macon County, Alabama, 1957

Despite its fundamental political motive–to reshape voting districts in order to benefit the electoral chances of one political party–gerrymandering may be one of the few practices that Republicans and Democrats have in common these days.  Although the effects of Republican-led gerrymandering has arguably received more national attention during recent years, both parties have used this practice to gain political advantages. Districts across Maryland, for example, have been redrawn by both major parties during the last several decades.  Take Baltimore–a longtime resident in southern Baltimore may have lived in as many as three different electoral districts during the last 20 years.

While gerrymandering has been utilized to both maximize and minimize the electoral impact of different groups of voters, its geographic effect typically follows a certain pattern.  The shapes of different districts change every few years as a result of gerrymandering. However, in 1957 in southeast Alabama, the practice of gerrymandering almost led to the complete elimination of one county entirely.  The reason? To severely curtail the voting power of African-American residents.

Despite ever-present resistance from white, pro-segregation factions, including violent intimidation tactics used by white nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, black voter registration in the South rose steadily during the 1950s.  A corresponding trend was also occurring in Macon County, Alabama–located about 40 miles east of Montgomery and home to the historically-black Tuskegee University. Whereas only 30 African-American residents were registered to vote in 1930, over 1,000–or roughly three percent of the total county population–were registered by 1957.  

Of course, this trend also created heightened concern among white southerners who feared that black voters would be able to curtail long-standing segregation laws across the region.  In turn, they worked with state legislators like Alabama senator Sam Engelherdt to develop and implement strategies to stop the growth of black voters.

In 1957, Senator Engelherdt took a unique measure to do just that.  He introduced Act 140, a state voting measure that, if passed, would eliminate Macon County and incorporate its residents into five neighboring counties with more concentrated white populations.  As a result of the proposed amendment, black voters distributed among five different, predominantly white counties would have a much weaker influence on elections and voting measures.

Despite the growing number of registered black voters in Macon County, white voters still outnumbered them approximately two to one in 1957.  As a result, Act 140 passed easily in December 1957. Years later, a state amendment was introduced and passed by Representative Thomas Reed–an African-American representative from Tuskegee and future president of the Alabama NAACP–to nullify Act 140 and reestablish Macon County.  

Nevertheless, the damage caused by the original amendment had already been done.  The Tuskegee Civic Association denounced Act 140, calling it a ploy orchestrated by white segregationists to “maintain an undemocratic system of social relationships, a system which cannot be justified morally or politically.”  Although it was neither the first nor the last time that a state used political measures to reshape voting districts, the events in Macon County in 1957 demonstrate how gerrymandering was–and continues to be–used to facilitate social and racial injustices.  

To learn more about the history and impact of voter disenfranchisement, check out the “Get Out The Vote: Suffrage & Disenfranchisement in America” exhibit from the Special Collections and University Archives.  

David Biel, Candidate for Master of Library & Information Science, University of Maryland.

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