Turning Back the Clock On Voting Rights
Nor are such tactics unique to Alabama. For years, voting-rights activists and black voters in the South have complained to federal officials that their rights have been denied through such tactics as harassment at the voting booth in the form of having their pictures taken or their license-plate numbers recorded by white poll workers. Officials at the Justice Department's Washington headquarters even warned the State of Mississippi and the Republican Party of Georgia--the former in 1996 and the latter in 1998--about allowing such practices. In a similar vein, Republican North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, trailing a black opponent in 1990, mailed out postcards to 125,000 black voters implicitly threatening them with jail if they went to the polls. Helms's campaign settled a complaint with the Justice Department in 1992, but not before he had won another term.
But it is here in Alabama, the state that boasts the largest number of black elected officials, that voter intimidation has taken on its greatest significance. The voter-fraud investigations are concentrated in counties that make up the so-called Black Belt of the state: Greene, Wilcox, Hale, Sumter, Perry, Marengo, Pickens and Dallas. These counties served as the backdrop for some of the hardest-fought battles of the civil rights movement and the struggle for black voting rights. The brutal beating of civil rights marchers as they attempted in 1965 to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the seat of Dallas County, was televised nationally and became the catalyst for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today, although the counties rank among the most impoverished in the state, blacks, largely because of the civil rights movement, have made enormous political gains. Most of the elected officials are African-American, even though economic power remains largely in the hands of whites.
The voter-fraud cases in Alabama may be a harbinger of things to come if they are allowed to continue, said Ron Daniels of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. "This could have political ramifications across the South," he said. "Blacks, who have worked hard to get the basic right to vote, could find themselves, once again, at the mercy of the very people who opposed them in the fifties and sixties."
The first voter-fraud investigation in the Black Belt counties came after African-Americans began to hold office in significant numbers for the first time as a result of the civil rights movement's success in insuring blacks the right to vote. The case, which started in 1979, involved Maggie Bozeman, a young teacher in Pickens County, Alabama, and Julia Wilder, a local voting-rights activist. After complaints of voter fraud by local whites, federal investigators charged both women with voter fraud after they assisted voters with absentee ballots.
Bozeman and Wilder were convicted, but the decision was eventually overturned in 1985 with the assistance of Lani Guinier, then a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and later, briefly, Clinton's nominee to be Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights. "Absentee ballots have always been used in these counties, even when whites were in control," said J.L. Chestnut, an attorney in Selma and former chairman of the Alabama New South Coalition, an African-American-led group that advocates voting rights. "Only when blacks began to win did they become a problem." (The use of absentee ballots is common in areas where many voters are elderly or work elsewhere because of high local unemployment.)
In the same year as the Bozeman and Wilder case, a federal investigation of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a group established to help black farmers in the rural South, began after whites in the surrounding counties said blacks were using illegal means to elect officeholders. In May 1979 more than 100 influential white citizens of Sumter County gathered at the Cotton Patch Restaurant in Greene County. Among those at the meeting were several local and state elected officials, the local newspaper editor, both of Alabama's US senators and then-US Representative Richard Shelby, who is now a US senator. The purpose of the meeting, which was later called the Cotton Patch conspiracy, was to determine whether black staffers at the federation were using federal money to register voters. Representative Shelby was asked by attendees to initiate a General Accounting Office investigation of the federation--to stop the alleged "government-funded activism." But the state comptroller general at the time, Elmer Staats, said a full-scale investigation by the GAO was unwarranted, because the federal agencies giving money to the federation had their own inspectors general to monitor the use of federal dollars. Undeterred, the Cotton Patch attendees managed to get the local US Attorney's office in Birmingham to investigate. The office spent more than a year poring over federation records and questioning hundreds of people. In the end, nothing was found. In May 1981 the US Attorney issued a statement saying, "I have decided to decline prosecution."
But just four years later, in 1985, the federal government launched another investigation of voting-rights activists that would also end in acquittals. This time the investigation was two-pronged. In the Southern District of Alabama, the US Attorney in Mobile began a probe of three veteran civil rights activists: Albert Turner, a local activist and former aide to Martin Luther King Jr.; his wife, Evelyn Turner; and Spencer Houge Jr., all of Perry County, Alabama. As in other cases, the government alleged that the Turners and Houge had illegally obtained absentee ballots and had forged the signatures of voters. All three defendants denied the charges and called the investigation an attempt to undermine black voting power. The case got national attention, and the three activists became known as the Marion Three. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and several other civil rights organizations provided legal counsel. After a long trial, a jury found the three activists not guilty on all counts.