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.

Disenfranchisement in Mississippi, 1954

On February 3, 1870, the United States ratified the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  The third and final amendment of the Reconstruction Amendments–enacted in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War to help rebuild the Union and establish a freer society unbound from slavery–prohibits states and the federal government from withholding a citizen’s right to vote based on that person’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”  After Iowa ratified the amendment on February 3–becoming the 28th state to do so and fulfilling the three-fourths threshold for amendment ratification–celebrations sprung out across the country.  

At the time, President Ulysses S. Grant claimed that the passage of the Fifthteenth Amendment “completes the greatest civil change and constitutes the most important event” in the nation’s history.  Many other Republicans believed that the amendment would finally guarantee black Americans equal rights under the law. Future president James A. Garfield even declared that the amendment would ensure black Americans control over their collective well-being.  Garfield proclaimed, “It places their fortunes in their own hands.”

Nevertheless, because the federal government failed to strongly enforce the Fifteenth Amendment at the state level after the Reconstruction Era, southern states used alternative methods to restrict the right to vote for black Americans.  For many decades after the ratification of the amendment, the state of Mississippi became one of the more deliberate enablers of disenfranchisement methods. By 1875, only five years after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, members of the Democratic Party in the state developed what came to be known as the Mississippi Plan–a series of measures used to suppress the black vote and keep their party in power.  Eventually, these measures culminated in the passage of a new state constitution in 1890, which explicitly disenfranchised black voters through the implementation of poll taxes and literacy tests.

Disenfranchisement in Mississippi and other Southern states–enforced using voter registration measures like poll taxes as well as violent intimidation tactics organized by racist vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan–persisted throughout the late 1800s and well into the 20th century.  However, by the mid-1950s, events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the emergence of grassroot civil rights groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference helped spur rejuvenated calls for actions to protect the rights and well-being of African-Americans across the country.     

The Mississippi State Industrial Union Council, a state affiliate of the CIO, was just one of many grassroots organizations in the South that worked to combat racial discrimination during the Civil Rights Movement.   As illustrated in the CIO handout titled “Your November Vote Could Be Your Last,” the council worked diligently during the 1950s to oppose disenfranchisement measures supported by their state government.  This advertisement was published and distributed in 1954 to encourage eligible voters to vote against a proposed amendment that, according to the opposition, was specifically designed to prohibit African-Americans from voting.  

As written, the “Concurrent Resolution to Amend Section 244 of the [Mississippi] Constitution” would, among other stipulations, require prospective voters to “be able to read and write any section of the Constitution of this state and give a reasonable interpretation thereof to the county registrar.”  The state CIO council and other regional civil rights groups believed that the amendment targeted black voters in several different ways. Not only did the amendment place a substantial heavier burden on prospective black voters, as only about five percent were already registered as opposed to over 60 percent of white voters, but required them to pass an arbitrary test that could be extremely difficult for an electorate that received about 70 percent less educational funding compared to whites.  

Largely due to these purposeful restrictions, as well as the fact that 95 percent of Mississippi’s eligible voters in 1954 were white, the state amendment passed easily that November.  Black voters in Mississippi–along with black voters across the South–would have to wait another 11 years for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to formally abolish literacy tests for voting across the country.       

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.

Spotlight on Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and acclaimed poet born in Baltimore in 1825. Born to free parents and orphaned at three, Watkins was raised by her maternal uncle Rev. William Watkins, an abolitionist and civil rights activist, and his wife Henrietta. She was educated at her uncle’s school, the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. While she was still very young, Harper worked as a nursemaid and seamstress for a white family that owned a bookshop. There, she discovered her love for books and filled her free time with reading. 

From there, Watkins grew up to become the first African American woman to publish a short story, and she published her first book of poetry, Forest Leaves, at age 20. Harper went on to publish another book of poetry, many short stories, and several novels, including her most popular work Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted. Watkins’ writing often addressed issues of race, gender, and their intersections. 

The poem below, “Slave Mother,” highlights the painful relationship between motherhood and Blackness that Harper observed during her lifetime. 

Heard you that shriek? It rose

   So wildly on the air,

It seem’d as if a burden’d heart

   Was breaking in despair.

Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—

   The bowed and feeble head—

The shuddering of that fragile form—

   That look of grief and dread?

Saw you the sad, imploring eye?

   Its every glance was pain,

As if a storm of agony

   Were sweeping through the brain.

She is a mother pale with fear,

   Her boy clings to her side,

And in her kyrtle vainly tries

   His trembling form to hide.

He is not hers, although she bore

   For him a mother’s pains;

He is not hers, although her blood

   Is coursing through his veins!

He is not hers, for cruel hands

   May rudely tear apart

The only wreath of household love

   That binds her breaking heart.

His love has been a joyous light

   That o’er her pathway smiled,

A fountain gushing ever new,

   Amid life’s desert wild.

His lightest word has been a tone

   Of music round her heart,

Their lives a streamlet blent in one—

   Oh, Father! must they part?

They tear him from her circling arms,

   Her last and fond embrace.

Oh! never more may her sad eyes

   Gaze on his mournful face.

No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks

   Disturb the listening air:

She is a mother, and her heart

   Is breaking in despair.

In her discussions of intersectionality, Watkins alienated many white suffragists. She criticized the racism and selfishness of their refusal to support the 15th Amendment. In response, she helped found the American Woman Suffrage Association, which actively supported the 15th Amendment. She was also active in the “Colored Section” of Philadelphia’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. 

Later, Watkins helped organize the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). The NACW focused on both black and women’s issues such as women’s suffrage, lynching, and Jim Crow laws, and became the most prominent organization of the African American Women’s Suffrage Movement. 


Post by Rigby Philips
History, specializing in women’s history and the history of sexuality
(2021)

New Exhibition Online: Get Out the Vote

We are thrilled to announce the launch of a new virtual exhibition, Get Out the Vote: Suffrage and Disenfranchisement in America.

Inspired by our collections of grassroots organizations, we used material from our collection to tell the story of voting rights in America, from the founding of this nation to our current electoral climate.

The ideal of universal suffrage, or “one person, one vote,” has compelled many to advocate for greater equity and inclusion in the electoral process. Over the years, voting rights have expanded and contracted for many marginalized communities. Election laws continue to evolve in America as citizens demand equitable representation in government and access to the ballot.

Despite the importance of suffrage in America, voting rights have not always been ensured for everyone. Barriers to voting have led many to advocate for a more representative electorate and to encourage greater participation in local, state, and national elections. Their efforts are crucial to ensure all ALL citizens have the opportunity to cast their ballot.

Visit the online exhibition, explore our collections, and contact us to learn more.