Photo Credit: by Michael Scott Milner | Shutterstock.com

The recent election of Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to represent Georgia in the US Senate represents a big step forward from the time I first registered to vote in Atlanta in June of 1966. The clerk in the registration office recognized the address I gave as my residence as that of the SCLC Freedom House – as well as the former residence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  

He didn’t want to let me register.

SCLC wanted all of its staff who could qualify to vote in the Sept. 14 primary to register in order to defeat Lester Maddox, one of the announced candidates. Maddox, a flamboyant segregationist who had shuttered his Pickrick Cafeteria rather than serve African-Americans, had announced that he was running for Governor.

Maddox had become famous for closing his business rather than complying with the requirement of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that all public accommodations involved in interstate commerce be open to anyone, regardless of race. On July 3, 1964 Maddox stood outside his Atlanta restaurant with an ax handle and a gun, threatening three Black seminary students who were trying to enter to see if the law would be enforced. 

Chased away, the three students immediately sued Maddox in federal court, represented by NAACP attorneys. The Department of Justice intervened, asking a three-judge district court to hear the lawsuit, pursuant to Sec. 206(b) of the 1964 Act when “the case is of general public importance.” Judges Elbert Tuttle of the 5th Circuit, and Lewis Morgan and Frank A. Hooper of the Northern District of Georgia held a quick hearing before issuing a Temporary Restraining Order. 

Maddox closed his restaurant.

A political wannabe, Maddox had run for Mayor of Atlanta in 1957 and 1961, and for Lieutenant Governor in 1962, but lost badly each time. After a photo of his defiance appeared in newspapers all over the country, Maddox became a symbol of resistance to integration to many Georgians, and of government intrusion into their private business to many other Americans. His fame made him the favorite in the primary.

SCLC did not want Maddox to become Governor of Georgia.

Black men first voted in Georgia in 1867, electing 37 of their own to a constitutional convention. As in other Southern states, Georgia elites spent the next 40 years working to keep African Americans out of politics. By the time a comprehensive law was passed in 1908 to disfranchise them, there were few Black voters and only one Black state representative.

Georgia has frequently rewritten its constitution. The one in force during the civil rights era was ratified in 1945. Section II spelled out who could vote, using many of the same devices found in other Southern constitutions and laws. In addition to residency requirements and not having committed a disqualifying crime, a potential voter had to meet one of two standards: to be “of good character and understand the duties and obligations of citizenship;” or to correctly read and write a paragraph from the Georgia or US Constitutions. (GA Const. 1945, Art. II, §§ 1,2) 

This was potentially an easier test than in some other Southern states. 

The poll tax was abolished in 1945, right before a federal court found Georgia’s white primary to be unconstitutional.  As a result, stimulated by a racist 1946 gubernatorial campaign, Black voter registration exploded. When registration closed before the July 17, 1946 primary, 134,351 African Americans were registered out of a total of 1,017,036 voters, making Black voters over 13 percent of the electorate. 

Registrars in 30 counties immediately began purging the lists, reducing Black registration to 118,387 statewide before federal judge Frank Scarlett ordered a halt to the purge. 

By 1949, 25 percent of all Atlanta voters were African American. In July of that year, Black leaders founded the Atlanta Negro Voters League (ANVL), a loose political machine that bargained Black votes for city services such as paved roads, trash removal, sewers, street lights and sidewalks. The first African-American joined the police force in 1948. In 1961, nine Black children entered four previously all-white high schools in Atlanta without violence. The mayor, the school superintendent and the police chief all urged compliance with the court order. The ANVL was intentionally bipartisan, with co-chairs and balanced committees because many African Americans still voted Republican. Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. had voted Republican all his life and made sure that his sons did so as well, until 1960, when JFK expressed sympathy for Dr. King, who was in a Georgia jail. 

African Americans in Atlanta registered and voted at a much higher rate than in the rest of the state. A cosmopolitan city spread out over parts of five counties, Atlanta had a large, educated middle-class, black and white. It was home to Atlanta University, a consortium of six historically black colleges and universities. Atlanta’s expansion into its suburbs brought in a more moderate white vote, part of an educated and affluent business class that was concerned with the city’s image outside the South. Many of Atlanta’s political leaders were beholden to this business class, who believed that racial strife was bad for business. Georgia might elect populist leaders who appealed to racist sentiments–but not Atlanta.

By the end of 1963, non-whites were 15.2 percent of all state voters: it was enough to prompt several African Americans in Black Belt counties to run for office in 1964. They didn’t win.

Nevertheless, federal court decisions made it easier for urban Blacks to win elections.  Sanders v. Gray challenged the way the Democratic Party chose its statewide nominees in the primary.  After appeal, the Supreme Court affirmed by 8 to 1 on March 18, 1963.  Justice William O. Douglas wrote: “The concept of political equality…can mean only one thing—one person, one vote.”  Later courts changed this phrase to “one man, one vote.”

Other decisions chipped away at the status quo, sometimes indirectly. In Wesberry v. Sanders (1964), the Court ruled that Congressional districts should be approximately equal in population, making gerrymandering and the awarding of seats to white districts harder.  

Similarly, In Toombs v. Fortson (1962), the federal district court ruled that the legislature had to reapportion at least one legislative body on the basis of population. It chose the Senate. The legislature also changed the requirement to win nomination for a Senate seat from a plurality to a majority in order to keep Negroes from winning an election if too many white candidates split the white vote. A run-off would allow the white majority to coalesce behind the most popular white candidate. After allocating seats according to population, African Americans won both the Democratic and Republican nominations for one of Fulton County’s (mostly Atlanta) Senate seats. In 1963 attorney and former school teacher Leroy Johnson was sworn in as the first Negro Senator since 1874. 

Cases in other states also set precedents. On June 15, 1964 the Supreme Court ruled in an Alabama case that “the seats in both houses of a bicameral legislature must, under the Equal Protection Clause, be apportioned substantially on a population basis.” That led to a special election in Georgia on June 16, 1965 to fill seats in 47 newly drawn house districts. Republicans won 17 races, but Black Republican candidates all lost. In Atlanta, six African American Democrats defeated Black Republicans. Among the victors were Julian Bond, the communications director of SNCC, Benjamin D. Brown, executive secretary of the Atlanta NAACP, and Grace Towns Hamilton, the first Black woman to ever serve in the Georgia General Assembly. In 1966 African Americans were elected in Augusta and Columbus, bringing the total number in the state legislature to ten.

These decisions also triggered resistance from white politicians. In 1964, the Georgia legislature revised the election code to conform to the federal court decisions.  Whites debated how to limit the influence of Black votes–or, as it was called, the “bloc vote,” on the assumption that all African Americans would vote for whomever their leaders designated. The requirement that candidates receive a majority of votes cast in a primary to win nomination was extended to all state offices, institutionalizing run-off elections. Voters still had to prove literacy or answer correctly 15 out of 20 questions on the duties of citizenship. County registrars determined when and where registration occurred, and registration for municipal elections was separate from registering for federal, state and county elections.

Meanwhile, white voters in Georgia (and several other Southern states) began to shift their allegiance to the Republican party. In 1964 Barry Goldwater, who opposed federal civil rights legislation, captured a majority of the votes in the five Deep South states; he got 54.12 percent in Georgia. The Republican nominee for President won nine out of the next 14 Presidential elections. George Wallace won in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980, Bill Clinton in 1992 and Joe Biden in 2020. Of these five only Georgia native Carter won a majority of the votes cast.  The Democratic candidate for governor continued to win until 2002 when the Republicans took over and kept on winning. The last Democratic Senator (before 2021) left office in 2005.

After the Voting Rights Act became law on August 6, 1965, federal examiners were initially sent only to South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. Federal examiners didn’t get to Georgia until 1967. When SCLC and other Black organizations ran major voter registration drives in Georgia in anticipation of the 1966 election, they dealt with local registrars, who continued to make it as difficult as possible for African Americans to register. Counties would do such things as hold only one registration day a month and do it during normal working hours, which meant loss of pay for the day; require Blacks to stand for hours in the hot sun while whites were registered as soon as they arrived; limit the number of clerks available and allow them frequent and lengthy breaks. 

Active intimidation was also part of voter suppression, building on Georgia’s long history of  violence. Organizers like me were followed to see which local African Americans spoke to us. Those who did often received a threatening “visit.” Gas stations would not sell us gas or repair our cars. We were repeatedly ticketed and sometimes cars ran our vehicles off the road. For white teenagers, harassing civil rights workers was a sport.

Even before federal examiners arrived in 1967, the VRA and community organizing had an impact. In December 1962, 27.4 percent of Georgia’s non-white voting age population was registered to vote. By August 3, 1967, 52.6 percent were registered. White registration also increased significantly, but it didn’t double. 

As registration crept up, so did the number of Black officeholders. In 1972 Andrew Young, executive director of SCLC, was elected to Congress. In 1973 Maynard Jackson became the first Black mayor of Atlanta. In 1975, African Americans in the legislature formed the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, which pushed for the appointment of Black judges and heads of administrative agencies, and the awarding of state contracts to minority owned businesses. In 1981 Andrew Young succeeded Maynard Jackson as Atlanta’s mayor. In 1986, John Lewis was elected to Congress from the same Atlanta district which Andrew Young had represented until 1977, when President Carter appointed him to be UN Ambassador.

As African Americans migrated to the Democratic Party, conservative whites left for the Republican Party. What had been a single party system dominated by white supremacists for almost a century became both more racially inclusive and politically polarized. In the 21st Century, white Republicans are running the state but Black Democrats have a major voice. Republicans still hold the top three state offices and both chambers of the General Assembly, but Atlanta’s five counties all have Black leadership. Stacey Abrams, about which much has been written, was elected minority leader of the Georgia house in 2010 and was the Democratic candidate for Governor in 2018. A Black woman is the highest ranking Democrat in the state.

In the January 5, 2021, run-off election for two Senate seats, urban counties voted for the Democratic candidates while rural counties favored the Republicans. According to surveys by the National Opinion Research Center, Black voters cast 32 percent of the ballots; 94 percent of those went for the Democrats. The Democratic vote was boosted by young voters, suburbanites, women and recent arrivals to the state. The Republican candidates won 75 percent of white voters and 60 percent of those 65 and older. The gender gap was four percent among white voters and nine percent among African Americans – with women favoring the Democrats in both groups. Some voters seem to have split their ticket: among the Democratic candidates, Warnock got almost 20,000 more votes than Ossoff. Of the Republicans, Purdue got almost 20,000 more votes than Loeffler.

Today’s Georgia is different from the state where I voted in 1966. Of its 14 Representatives, 8 are Republicans and 6 are Democrats; all of the Republicans are white, but five of the Democrats are Black. Raphael Warnock is the first Black Senator from a Southern state since Reconstruction and he is the pastor of the same church that Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. led for four decades beginning in 1931. Jon Ossoff is the only white, male Democrat among Georgia’s 16 Members of Congress.

Jo Freeman is a writer and photographer. This article is adapted from her forthcoming book, Tell It Like It Is: Living History in the Southern Civil Rights Movement, 1965-66.

Copyright © 2021 by Jo Freeman


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