Skip to main content

How segregation got busted

By Gary May, Special to CNN
updated 6:22 PM EDT, Mon June 24, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gary May: Court to consider 1965's Voting Rights Act provision
  • He says in 1966, Alabama's white attorney general broke ground seeking the black vote
  • He says racist candidates, even Strom Thurmond, would end up courting the black vote
  • May: Act increased the black vote and altered the approach of white Southern politicians

Editor's note: Gary May is a professor of history at the University of Delaware and author of "Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy."

(CNN) -- While the nation waits to see whether the 1965 Voting Rights Act will be dismantled by the U.S. Supreme Court, it is worth reviewing how the act affected one group that had long opposed black suffrage: Southern white politicians

Before 1965, many white officeholders helped build their career by preventing blacks from voting. They could easily ignore black citizens. In the very first primary election after passage of the Voting Rights Act, that began to change.

In Alabama in 1966, Lurleen Wallace was standing in for her husband, George Wallace, who was unable to run again because of term limits. She faced a challenge from Attorney General Richmond Flowers, the first Democrat to seek black votes. If elected, he promised to remove the Confederate flag that flew atop the State Capitol and delete the words "White Supremacy" from the party emblem.

Gary May
Gary May

Flowers campaigned mostly in black communities and joined in singing "We Shall Overcome." In return, he received the support of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Alabama's two largest black political groups, the Confederation of Alabama Political Organizations and the Alabama Democratic Conference, groups shunned by white candidates.

Other candidates, once intensely racist, surprisingly followed Flowers' lead.

Al Lingo -- head of Alabama's State Troopers and one of the architects of Bloody Sunday, the assault on Selma-to-Mongomery marchers on March 7, 1965, by state troopers and deputies -- sought black votes in his race for Jefferson County sheriff.

"I want the support of everybody, white or colored," he said. As for Bloody Sunday, he claimed that he had wanted to let the marchers proceed, but the governor overruled him, making him the "scapegoat" for what occurred. If elected, he promised that the sheriff's office would include black deputies.

Even more startling was the behavior of Jim Clark, Sheriff of Dallas County, who was seeking re-election.

Just the year before, Clark had treated African-Americans seeking the right to vote in Selma with unparalleled savagery and led the Bloody Sunday assault. Now he attempted to woo black voters.

On April 24, he invited them to join him at a picnic where beer and barbecue were served. Turnout was disappointing. "A man can't beat us in 1964 and 1965 and expect us to vote for him in 1966," noted one black leader.

Because black votes now counted, reporters covering the campaign noted that the n-word, once a political staple, had disappeared. George Wallace, accustomed to saying "Nigra," now struggled to remember that it should be pronounced "Negro."

The Supreme Court's closing act
Is it time to end the Voting Rights Act?
How far has America come on race?

While Lurleen Wallace won an overwhelming victory on Election Day, Lingo received less than one-tenth of the number of votes cast for his opponent. Clark, facing defeat, attempted to steal his election, but he was blocked by Assistant Attorney General John Doar, who took him to court in the first lawsuit brought under the Voting Rights Act. Clark lost in court, ending his long reign of terror in Alabama.

The 1966 Alabama primary was a preview of what was to come. In the years that followed, George Wallace apologized for his earlier racist views and sought the support of black voters. But perhaps more important -- and more striking -- was the evolution of South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, who had opposed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and its renewal in 1970 and 1975.

In 1982, civil rights activists worried that Thurmond would use his power as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to kill the act's reauthorization. Thurmond's opposition to integration went back decades. In 1948, Harry Truman's civil rights programs had led Thurmond to bolt the Democratic National Convention and run for president as a "Dixiecrat."

As a senator, Thurmond launched a historic filibuster against the 1957 Civil Rights Act and denounced the 1964 Civil Rights Act as "vicious." That same year Thurmond became a Republican and supported Barry Goldwater for president, beginning the political transformation of the South from staunchly Democratic to reliably Republican.

By 1982, 30% of the voters in Thurmond's state were black, leaving the senator little choice but to vote for the act. In doing so, he said that he did not want to fall victim to "the common perception that a vote against the bill indicates opposition to the right to vote and, indeed, opposition to the group of citizens who are protected under the Voting Rights Act." Or, as he earlier told a racist colleague who lost a campaign for governor of South Carolina, "we can't win elections any more by cussin' Nigras."

The Voting Rights Act had succeeded in doing what it was created to do: create millions of new black voters, and -- less understood -- free white Southern politicians from always opposing black gains. There is no better example of democracy in action. In 2006, not a single senator from a state covered by the Voting Rights Act voted against its renewal.

Should the Supreme Court now significantly weaken the protection of minority voting that the act provides, we may well return to a time when "cussin' Nigras" is again a politically acceptable strategy.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gary May.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
updated 10:19 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT