By Gordon A. Martin, Jr.
January/February 2012 Issue of Poverty & Race
Count Them One by One: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote
In 1962 in Forrest County, Mississippi, only 12 of the 7,500 adult black citizens were permitted to register to vote. That year, I made my first trip to the Deep South as one of the trial lawyers of Robert Kennedy’s Civil Rights Division. I was less than two years out of law school. The Justice Department was about to try its first major case against a Mississippi registrar of voters for discrimination against blacks.
Together with my section chief Bob Owen, I first interviewed prospective African-American witnesses. We had been prepared to present our case solely through their testimony. They were a diverse, impressive group, including five teachers, three men and two women, all with master’s degrees awarded or in process from prestigious Northern universities.
Every one of the small group of lawyers who made up the Southern trial staff of the Civil Rights Division had experienced certain particularly memorable events. One of Jim Groh’s was finding the man who would become our first witness, Jesse Stegall. Jim had worked on the Tennessee sharecropper cases with John Doar when John first became the Division’s First Assistant in August 1960.
In September 1961, Jim, then 27, was, as he put it, “sent down to cruise Forrest County and make cold calls on possible sources/witnesses . . . We were still feeling our way around in Mississippi, having spent most of 1960 in Tennessee and then focusing on the Middle District of Alabama . . . with time out for the Freedom Riders for most of May 1961 . . .
“Hattiesburg was obviously a gold mine, and Jesse was the key to the mine. By that time I had probably visited fifty or so counties full of frightened, intimidated, and often very marginally educated people. To find a school principal and other teachers—people with graduate degrees—who were willing to try to register and to testify was like finding the Holy Grail. I also believe that Hattiesburg was the largest town we had tackled to date . . . Forrest County immediately became a hot prospect. I don’t think it is any secret that the Kennedy Administration at the time was interested in early, dramatic and successful results, and I suspect that is why Forrest was put on the front burner.”
Choosing the First Witness
In any multiple witness trial, a significant strategic decision is choosing the first witness. The first witness will likely get the longest, toughest, possibly nastiest cross-examination. The first witness will set the tone of the case, impressing or not impressing opposing counsel and, more important, the judge.
You don’t want a witness you must protect excessively with objections, sound or not. That will only annoy the judge. One of your tasks also is building the record for an appeal, here to the far more receptive arena of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
For us, the choice to lead off was not that hard. Jesse Stegall was an elementary school principal, married, a father, a man with a lot to lose in publicly seeking to vote in hostile Forrest County. What gave Stegall the necessary courage to step forward?
Jesse was the youngest of seven children born to the first Mrs. Stegall. Most of his siblings went in different directions—from Memphis to New York. The only other Mississippi voter applicant among them was Annie Kathryn, the only black registered nurse of her day at Hattiesburg’s Forrest General Hospital.
Of the 54 in Jesse’s graduating class at Laurel’s Oak Park High School, over half went on to college. Besides working while a student at historically black Jackson State, Jesse was vice-president of the Student Council and business manager of the choir. He also managed his fraternity house. His fraternity was selective: a B average was required, as was persevering and helping those less fortunate. At a fraternity dance, Jesse won a membership to the NAACP.
Summer study was the only way he could later earn a master’s degree. Jesse selected the University of Wisconsin, which offered tuition, room and board at a reasonable price. He studied in Madison summers from 1960 through 1963.
Jesse and his friends always wanted to vote. They didn’t like paying the two dollars a year poll tax just to be eligible to vote, but blacks who applied were able to vote in Jones County where he had grown up, and Jesse hadn’t thought he would have a problem—until he arrived in Hattiesburg. John Doar told Stegall: “I think I’ll put you on first.” Stegall replied: “Well, okay.”
But we had more than the teachers. There were seven workers from Hercules Powder, Hattiesburg’s major employer, some of whom had broken the employment color line by being selected for skilled jobs previously reserved for whites. The importance of labor unions is often ignored today, but the union shop steward at the Hercules plant could not have had greater impact for his black workers.
Raymond Ralph Dunagin, known to all as “Huck,” was not given to calling meetings. He didn’t have to. He always seemed to be everywhere as he walked the floor of the plant. Huck Dunagin was big and powerful, a former all-state lineman when in high school football. He was the steward the blacks had elected. And Huck Dunagin was white.
“I’m no integrationist,” he told me years later. “If they wanted to keep the races separate in school, that was okay with me. But my men not be able to vote—my men not be able to hold any job they were capable of holding—I couldn’t permit that.” With Huck’s encouragement and his commitment that their jobs were safe, the black Hercules workers went to Registrar Theron Lynd’s office time after time, not deterred by delay or rejection.
Our black witnesses also included two full-time ministers, one Baptist and one Methodist; and two leaders of the county’s tiny NAACP cell and of the county’s black community as a whole, Vernon Dahmer and B.F. Bourn.
Forrest County Whites
In a late decision, we sought to add to their testimony that of Forrest County whites, one for each general time period when one of our black witnesses was either rejected after completing the state’s literacy test, or not even permitted to take it. We were not seeking converts to the cause of racial justice. We just wanted white people who would tell the truth: that, making only one visit to Registrar Lynd’s office, they were assisted in filling out the application and given one of the easier sections of the Mississippi constitution to interpret or just permitted to sign the registration book without being required to fill out a form at all. Lynd had been elected in February 1959 in an election where candidates literally addressed their campaign “TO THE WHITE DEMOCRATIC VOTERS OF FORREST COUNTY.”
Judge Harold Cox, nominated by President Kennedy at the insistence of a fellow Delta native, the powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, James O. Eastland, had handled the case since its filing in July 1961, the month he was sworn in as a judge. Cox had barred our presenting any testimony dealing with voting discrimination prior to the day Theron Lynd took office. Thus we had to focus on recent applicants for registration, who would have just become 21, the then voting age.
Cox had also dismissed the August 1960 demand the Attorney General had made for Forrest County’s voting records pursuant to the 1960 Civil Rights Act, saying we had abandoned that action when we brought the basic voting rights discrimination suit under the 1957 Act eleven months later. There was no legal basis for his not having allowed our records demand, let alone having dismissed it. Nor was there any basis for his not allowing our standard discovery motion in the new case. We were confronted with what Appeals Court Chief Judge Elbert Tuttle would term the “well-nigh impossible task” of proving voting discrimination by the registrar without access to any of his records.
Judge Cox’s barring testimony as to Lynd’s predecessors had at least targeted the white population we had to reach. The yearbooks of Hattiesburg High School and of the county high school were obvious first steps. Testifying before the United States Civil Rights Commission three years later, Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall referred to Bob Owen’s and my being “in Hattiesburg for almost three weeks sifting through newspapers, graduation yearbooks, city directories and other documents in order to identify and locate white persons who were placed on the rolls by the Mississippi registrars.”
With names from the yearbooks, we were ready to bring on special agents from the New Orleans office of the FBI to interview them. It was a sensible division of labor. The FBI would get on better with white Southerners, and we certainly got on better with prospective black witnesses.
FBI reports needed direction, the dotting of every “i” and crossing of every “t”. With Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover no enthusiast for our work, that was the only way we could ensure that the work product of his agents would be what we wanted. We set forth in a lengthy memorandum to the Bureau the exact language of every question we wanted asked, in the order we wanted them asked, from name and address to what was said to and by the women who serviced Theron Lynd’s registration counter. Much of the New Orleans regional office of the Bureau was soon working the white residents of Forrest County, asking those questions about their registration experience, in order, in our words.
After we reviewed the reports of the Bureau interviews, we did some follow-up visits to whites we anticipated calling. About 7 p.m., the father of a 25-year-old man I was trying to interview ordered me out of their house in no uncertain terms. I did not delay, but decided to make one final stop, driving to the outskirts of the city to see a young man another Division lawyer had talked to briefly.
I was greeted by his angry parents, who accused four FBI agents, as well as my colleague, of having harassed their son, also 25, several times throughout the day. It took a long time, but finally they agreed with me that the agents had not intentionally ganged up on their son.
Bureau agents always worked in pairs (as we were also supposed to). It turned out that two agents had called on his brother in the morning, and two other agents had come back in the afternoon to see him. By the time I had agreed that they were all “100% Americans” and certainly not “outlaws,” I had been invited to stay for dinner and to “come back and shoot a bird sometime,” both of which I politely declined.
Black Registration Denied
When a black person came into Theron Lynd’s office to try to register, he or she was generally turned away. The women who worked in the outer office never even gave an application to a black man, claiming it made them uncomfortable to deal with them, so blacks had to return when Lynd was available. The application (uniform throughout the state) asked for various personal information, including one’s precinct, had more than one line for a signature, and required a written section on the rights and duties of a citizen. Then the applicant was given a section of the state constitution and told to copy it out and explain in writing what it meant. Black applicants were given long and complicated sections, best dealt with by a lawyer, but they often did an excellent job despite this. Nevertheless, they were rejected. Sometimes the registrar gave as a reason for rejection an error such as having written the wrong precinct number. White applicants, if they had to fill out the application at all, were given such information on the spot.
Without Lynd’s voting records, when we began the trial we had no knowledge of who had applied or what they had written, except for the FBI investigation and what our witnesses told us. Only when the witnesses testified did we get to see their applications.
The opposing lawyers, Justice’s John Doar, Lynd’s M. M. Roberts and Mississippi Assistant Attorney General Dugas Shands, were in many ways larger than life. When we all, lawyers and witnesses alike, reached Judge Cox’s courtroom on March 5, 1962, it had not taken long for M. M. to paint for the court his picture of how we prepared our witnesses: “Swarms of federal government employees, they go in the nighttime to see them, everybody in the nighttime under cover of night, without a moon…” Actually, we generally worked from early morning to early evening. Nighttime was reserved for dinner and planning the next day.
Over a three-day period, our 16 courageous African-American witnesses who had been rejected for registration testified, along with the 16 contrasting white witnesses who had either been registered without being subjected to the literacy test or been asked to interpret a brief easy section of the Mississippi Constitution—typically, “There shall be no imprisonment for debt.” When Judge Cox granted a 30-day continuance to the defendants, refusing to enter an injunction against Lynd, Doar immediately appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Eisenhower appointees Elbert Tuttle, John Brown and John Minor Wisdom, along with Truman appointee Richard Rives, had changed the outlook of that court, which ruled against Lynd in a detailed opinion by Tuttle. It would be nice to say that resolved things, but Theron Lynd violated the order within days of its being served upon him.
It took three more trials, two for contempt, to deal just with Forrest County. It became painfully clear that with 82 counties in Mississippi, 128 in Georgia and the multiple parishes of Louisiana and counties of Alabama, the county-by-county, case-by-case approach would not work in our lifetimes. The radical answer, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enacted by the 89th Congress and strongly supported by President Lyndon Johnson, abolished the scam of the discriminatory literacy test and authorized federal registrars in place of county officials. There was some resistance, but before the end of the decade the shame of the caste system in Southern racial voting had ended.
I returned home to be a federal prosecutor and then practice law in Boston and ultimately became a judge, but I never forgot the witnesses in United States v. Lynd and the courage they showed in attempting to register and testifying about their rejection. I returned to Mississippi and renewed my acquaintance with them, and also talked with the relatives of those who had died, including Vernon Dahmer, who had been murdered in an attack engineered by Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Klan. In 1998, 32 years later, Bowers would be convicted of Dahmer’s murder in a moving state prosecution.
For the first time, I met the white shop steward at the Hercules Powder plant, Huck Dunagin, who had stood behind the black workers who tried to vote, guaranteeing to them that their jobs would be safe. At a time when unions are under siege, it is important to recall his example of how much a union leader who cares about his workers can accomplish.
In the Mississippi State Archives and McCain Library of the University of Southern Mississippi, I found documents such as reports of the State Sovereignty Commission and incendiary letters from attorney Roberts, which further illuminated the tensions in the society the Civil Rights Division lawyers confronted. Count Them One by One: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote is the account of those 16 African-American men and women who testified, of the trial that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act, and of how Mississippi has changed.
Today, Hattiesburg has a black mayor who had enough clout on a statewide level to become the Democratic nominee for Governor in 2011. In the racial polarization that exists between the parties in today’s Deep South, he, of course, could not succeed. On a more personal level, I recently met Reggie Howze, the grandson of one of our witnesses and a graduate of the formerly all-white Hattiesburg High School. Learning that I was from Boston, he told me that his classmate and “best friend in the world” was also living in Boston. When I met his friend Jeremy, he repeated the same phrase about Reggie. Jeremy is white. Neither of them seemed to find this fact significant.
We cannot be complacent about the access achieved then. The ballot must be intelligible to all, particularly new citizens. Voter ID laws such as those in Georgia and Indiana, and proposed in Wisconsin and many other states since the 2010 election, must be scrutinized carefully. Felon disenfranchisement laws that are an impediment to meaningful re-entry to society should be eliminated. And each generation of new voters must recognize the efforts that had to be made by many of their forebears in order to be able to vote, and understand that their vote does count and may make a difference.
Gordon A. Martin, Jr. is a retired Massachusetts trial judge. After two years in the Civil Rights Division, he became First Assistant United States Attorney for Massachusetts and later a Commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination. email@example.com