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 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT