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Tue, 10.18.1960

Gomillion v. Lightfoot is heard at The Supreme Court

*On this date in 1960, Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339 (1960), was argued at the United States Supreme Court.  This decision found an electoral district with boundaries created to disenfranchise blacks violated the Fifteenth Amendment.  

In Tuskegee, Alabama, after the Civil Rights Act of 1957, activists had been slowly making progress in registering black voters, whose numbers on the rolls began to approach those of white registered voters. The city was the location of the Tuskegee Institute, an (HBCU) and a large Veterans Administration hospital, both staffed entirely by Blacks.  Regarding the total population, blacks outnumbered whites in the city by a four-to-one margin, and whites were worried about being governed by the majority. Local white residents lobbied the Alabama legislature to redefine the city's boundaries.

Without debate in 1957 and ignoring Black protests, the legislature enacted Local Law 14 to form a 28-sided city boundary by which nearly all Black voters would be excluded, and no whites would be. The act was written by a state legislator who was executive secretary of the White Citizens' Council of Alabama and an advocate of white supremacy.  Charles G. Gomillion, a professor at Tuskegee, and other Blacks protested; community activists mounted a boycott against white-owned businesses in the city.  Gomillion and others filed suit against the city mayor and other officials, claiming the act was discriminatory under the Fourteenth Amendment's due process and equal protection clause.  

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, headed by Judge Frank M. Johnson, dismissed the case, ruling that the state had the right to draw boundaries of election districts and jurisdictions. The Court of Appeals upheld this ruling for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans.   As head of Tuskegee, Booker T. Washington had promoted Blacks advancing by education and self-improvement, with the expectation of being accepted by whites when they showed they were "deserving." At the time of the US Supreme Court hearing of this case, journalist Bernard Taper wrote:  

“Since the gerrymander was designed to defeat municipal suffrage rights of the highly "deserving" members of the Institute and the hospital staff, Session Law 140 has demonstrated, perhaps more than other symbols of Southern prejudice, the invalidity of Booker T. Washington's advice.  The state's redrawing of the city's boundaries had the "unintended effect of uniting Tuskegee Institute's Black intellectuals with the less educated Blacks living outside the sphere of the school. Some members of the school's faculty realized that possessing advanced degrees ultimately provided them no different status among the city's white establishment."  

Gomillion and his attorneys appealed the case to the US Supreme Court. The case was argued by Alabama civil rights attorney Fred Gray and Robert L. Carter, lead counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), with assistance from Arthur D. Shores, who provided additional legal counsel.  As of the early 21st century, the Alabama legislature continues to exert considerable control over local and county affairs; few counties in the state have home rules.

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