Southern Changes

The Journal of the Southern Regional Council, 1978-2003

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Go to Article List for Southern Changes. Volume 8, Number 2, 1986

Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee by Robert J. Norrell. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. $19.95

Reviewed by Howard R. Lamar

Vol. 8, No. 2, 1986, pp. 21-24

In the preface to Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee, Robert J. Norrell writes that: "It is about power: whites trying to keep control of their society and blacks seeking more autonomy. In a larger sense, it is the story of two communities, one white and one black, in the painful process of merging into a single if different community." On first impression that sounds like a political scientist or a sociologist speaking of revolutionary social and political change in abstract terms. Nothing could be further from the truth, for Reaping the Whirlwind may well be the most articulate, moving, personal and compassionate scholarly case study of the impact of the Civil Rights movement in the South to appear to date. It is both a tour de force of effective writing and a model of fairminded reporting. The interplay between the parade of vivid personalities in this book-judges, sheriffs, mayors, voter registrars, academics from the Tuskegee Institute and administrators from the local Veterans Hospital, is brillantly handled.

Reaping the Whirlwind focuses mainly on the thirty-


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one years between 1941 and 1972 when blacks and whites fought an intense battle as to who would control political offices in the City of Tuskegee, Ala., and the surrounding County of Macon. It was in 1941 that the softspoken Tuskegee Institute sociologist, Dean Charles Gomillion, organized the Tuskegee Civic Association, a group of black men and women, to achieve "civic democracy" by pressuring the Macon County Board of Registrars to enroll blacks as voters. That crusade came to an end, as it were, in 1972 when newly registered blacks, now the majority of voters in the County, elected blacks to nearly all the city and county offices as well as representatives to the state legislature. Best known among the winners were Lucius Amerson, a black sheriff who had held that off ce since 1966, and Johnny L. Ford, a former worker for Senator Robert Kennedy and Vice President Hubert Humphrey in the presidential campaign of 1968, who became Tuskegee's first black mayor.

What distinguishes this study from many others, however, is that Norrell is as determined to understand the white conservative rationale for resisting black political power as he is in detailing the story of the triumph of the black voter. Norrell feels that the thoughts and actions of white conservatives were shaped by the community's experiences during Reconstruction when recent ex-slaves were elected to political office under a Reconstruction state government. Believing that they had not only lost the Civil War but would lose control of their community, they organized to intimidate and drive out black political leaders between 1870 and 1874, when the election of governor George Houston symbolized the end of Reconstruction in Alabama. Norrell offers convincing evidence that memories of Reconstruction provided whites with the example of what would happen again if blacks ever gained political power.

After the violence of Reconstruction came a detente of sorts when whites, fearing that blacks might leave the county in such large numbers that the labor force would be depleted, sought to achieve "Perfect Quiet, Peace and Harmony"--a white conservative's phrase--in race relations, in part by providing training schools. As has long been known, Tuskegee town fathers cooperated with Booker T. Washington in 1881 to found the Tuskegee Institute as a trade school, operating on the model of Hampton Institute in Virginia. Norrell, having seen Washington in the context of the actual situation in Tuskegee, comes away with a renewed respect for Washington's realistic approach and his generally beneficial efforts for his race. At the same time he concludes that despite the presence of both Washington and George Washington Carver, the Institute actually did little for agriculture and the black farmer in Macon County.

Beginning with Washington and continuing through the term of his successor, Robert R. Moton, both Institute officials and Tuskegee whites worked to create a harmonious "model community" based on the separation of the races. Nevertheless Norrell contends that a black civil rights movement of sorts never ceased between 1870 and 1972. During his lifetime Washington was continually protesting anti-black state legislation, the poll tax, and in particular the disfranchisement of voters, both black and white, in the conservative State Constitution of 1901.

The hidden conflict surfaced anew in 1923 when a Veterans Administration Hospital for black soldiers was located in Tuskegee, and whites sought to control the key administrative positions. When they failed to do so, the long-term state senator from Tuskegee, Richard Holmes Powell, lamented that "The Negroes are gradually taking things away from us by contesting every inch of ground, refusing all compromise, and fighting to a finish." Eventually the Veterans Hospital employed 1500 blacks with high-paying jobs. "In that base of economic independence," writes Norrell, "lay the potential for challenging conservative control of Macon County." Ironically, educated blacks with economic independence, two main themes of Booker T. Washington's teaching, proved to be the key to success of the civil rights movement in Tuskegee.

The actual drive for voter registration started on an almost innocent note when Charles Gomillion, vouched for by two whites, registered to vote in 1939. He did so in part to secure paved roads and better water and sewage facilities for the black residential areas around the Institute. Norrell finds that Gomillion was a gradualist who felt that by cooperation between black and whites some kind of "civic democracy" could be achieved. The remainder of Reaping the Whirlwind is, at one level, the progressive disillusionment and political education of Gomillion, who, by the 1960s, had been replaced by a more militant black leadership which sought full power and not shared power. But until the 1960s it was Gomillion and the Tuskegee Civic Association who led the fight for registration, who instituted a successful boycott of local merchants, and who insisted on a gradual approach.

In 1941 with the coming of World War II, a third major force of potentially discontented blacks appeared in Macon County when Tuskegee Institute President Frederick Patterson persuaded the federal government to locate an Army Airforce Training Field in Tuskegee, a move the NAACP denounced as continuing segregation in the armed forces. Segregation between white officers and black trainees-many of the latter from the North and the Midwest-and conflict between black military police and white county police threatened major disruptions. A sense of escalating crisis developed as blacks from the Institute, the Hospital and the air base challenged the Board of Registrars in federal court in the case of Mitchell v. Wright. When the Board of Registrars resigned or registered white voters clandestinely, Governor James Folsom managed to find a religious farmer, W. H. Bentley, who believed all men equal in the sight of God, to serve as Registrar. Bentley registered 449 blacks in 1949, but was soon removed, and voter


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registration slowed again.

Norrell finds that paradoxically as white candidates came to depend more and more on black votes to be elected, the two sides had actually stopped talking to one another. Thus what Gomillion and the Tuskegee Civic Association and the new spokesman for the white conservatives, state Representative Samuel M. Engelhardt, Jr., had to say has to be told like two separated narratives. There followed in the 1950's, in dramatic sequence, moves and counter moves. When Engelhardt and Mayor Richard Lightfoot got the state legislature to pass a law redefining the city's boundaries so that most black voters would be excluded, the Civic Association responded by imposing a successful boycott on white merchants. Then in 1958 the newly formed United States Commission on Civil Rights heard evidence on voter discrimination in Tuskegee and ordered fuller registration. Meanwhile in Gomillion v. Lightfoot, the Supreme Court struck down the law gerrymandering the city's boundaries.

At this point, cautious liberals in Tuskegee began to question the wisdom of Representative Engelhardt's total denial of political rights for blacks; an accomodationist Mayor and City Council were elected in 1960, and a deeply religious local banker, J. Allen Parker, began to try to bridge the gap between the races through talk and action. Then suddenly the issue of school integration came to Tuskegee when the local school board was ordered to accept thirteen qualified black students into the all-white high school. School integration rather than voter registration, writes Norrell, "proved to be the first major transformation in race relations in Macon County," for it split the white community in scores of ways, setting friend against friend, husband against wife, ministers against their congregations.

Norrell traces these schisms as well as the public conflicts between Governor George Wallace and the federal courts as represented by Judge Frank M. Johnson of Montgomery. He also explains the rise and success of the private school movement. In this recital he tries to be fair to all parties, but he is understandably less patient with the various Alabama governors who played politics with Tuskegee's dilemma during the civil rights and school desegregation movements. In the end, school segregation was maintained and with the exception of the Church of Christ, the local churches did not integrate.

Paralleling the agonizing dissensions on the white side, there was a split between Gomillion and the more militant Non-Partisan League led by Paul Puryear, a young faculty member at the Institute, and by Detroit


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Lee of the Veterans Hospital, who sought to elect blacks to all offices. Soon thereafter a new movement by Institute students began, reflecting national black unrest during the 1960s and using the popular techniques of marches, demands, and sit-ins to secure jobs for blacks in white-run Tuskegee stores, to have the Confederate statue removed from the town square, and to register voters. Their acts led to conflict between the students and the Institute Board of Trustees and to a tragic individual confrontation when a black student, Samuel Young, was shot by a white gas station owner. Yet it was the students who managed to enroll 1600 rural blacks as voters and thus tipped future elections in favor of black candidates.

Understandably Norrell cannot suppress his excitement that somehow out of this painful saga, majority rule democracy had come to Tuskegee and had affected all sectors of life except for the integration of schools and churches. Yet while acknowledging that a major social and political revolution had occurred in this small Alabama community, he believes that there is continuity between Washington and Gomillion and between the Confederate veterans of 1870 and their successors, Probate Judge William Varner, the Board of Registrars, the mayors, Representative Engelhardt and the White Citizens Councils.

However, I think there is a third unstated continuity in Reaping the Whirlwind which helps explain both the long and tortured progress towards civil rights for blacks in Tuskegee and the American South, and the behavior of nearly all the protagonists in this troubled story. It is that tradition of deference found in all class and settled societies, exacerbated in the South by racial feelings. It is deference not merely of black for white, but black for black, white for white, sons and daughters for parents, men for women and women for men in the American South. That deference helped preserve segregation by stifling a dialogue between races; it suppressed debate within the white community; on occasion it may have forced violence to come before an honest exchange of views. Perhaps the greatest revolution in Tuskegee since the 1960s has been that so many contending groups have found their voice. The views of liberals and conservatives, of blacks and whites can be found in the local paper, and there--in hundreds more letters--can be found so many ideas, suggestions and protests that they suggest a latter-day revival of the reformers of the Jacksonian Period. Norrell is right in concluding that democracy with all its virtues and faults has now come to Tuskegee.

Even so there is also a new tone of mutual deference discernible in the Exchange Bank, in the Big Bear Supermarket, at the Veterans Hospital and among the mixed faculty at the Tuskegee Institute. It is this continuity, in a new context, that had led Norrell to speak with deep respect for the career and ideals of Charles Gomillion who, as he writes, "had been an emblem of interracial cooperation, a value which appears to be in ascendance in the county again by the late 1970's."

Based on many personal interviews, a careful attention to federal state, local records, newspapers, and the works of other scholars, Reaping the Whirlwind displays a thoroughness and a sensitivity to all points of view that it is exemplary. It avoids stereotypical heroes and villains, accepts no easy answers, and eschews moralizing. Reaping the Whirlwind has set high standards for future case studies--which are needed, for as Norrell himself has noted, "only when many of these stories are told will the South's great social upheaval be well understood."

Howard R. Lamar is William R. Coe Professor of American History, Yale University, and a native of Tuskegee.

Go to Article List for Southern Changes. Volume 8, Number 2, 1986

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Vol. 8, No. 2, 1986, pp. 16-17

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