For years after passage of the landmark federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, blacks in western Alabama’s rural “Black Belt” felt thwarted in their efforts to gain political office.
“It seemed like every time there was an election, we’d go to sleep thinking we had won only to wake up and find out, after the absentee ballots were counted, that we had lost,” said Lawrence Wofford of the Campaign for a New South, a Selma-based group promoting Black Belt political activity.
That changed dramatically after blacks learned to cultivate the absentee vote themselves. Today, blacks in this predominantly black region fill a majority of the seats on the county commissions and school boards in five of the 10 Black Belt counties. A state senator and three state representatives from the area are black. There are also several black mayors and sheriffs.
Moreover, blacks had been poised to take what one voting rights activist calls a “quantum leap” in political power next year, when all state and most county offices are up for election and a new redistricting plan takes effect for those five Black Belt counties.
That was before the U.S. Justice Department opened a massive investigation into black absentee voting, following last September’s Democratic primary. Hundreds of ballots were confiscated, reams of office files were seized and more than 1,000 black absentee voters were questioned.
In the months since then, eight veteran civil rights activists have been indicted on voting fraud charges including the stuffing of ballot boxes. Three of them have been tried and acquitted. But black leaders and civil rights groups charge that the investigation has left untold numbers of black voters--many of them elderly and poor--shaken and afraid of ever casting another ballot.
Last month, Maryland state Sen. Clarence Mitchell III, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, headed a protest caravan through Black Belt towns that featured a flatbed truck with an effigy of a black man being lynched.
“The Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council can close up shop, because the Justice Department is doing their work for them,” Mitchell told cheering black crowds.
Blacks Question Motive
“The Justice Department has made a 180-degree turn,” said the Rev. Ben Chavis of New York, deputy director of the New Commission for Racial Justice, an agency of the United Church of Christ. “They’re using the courts to dismantle the Voting Rights Act. The Black Belt case is one of national importance for blacks.”
The case is also significant to Republicans and Democrats generally as the 1986 elections approach. Alabama Sen. Jeremiah Denton, the conservative Republican incumbent, is expected to face Rep. Richard C. Shelby, who must count on a large turnout of black voters for victory. It is one of the races closely watched by both parties as they jockey for dominance of the Senate, which Republicans now narrowly control.
In a lawsuit seeking to have the investigation called off, the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center has charged that the Justice Department’s aim is to “punish” blacks for supporting Democratic candidates and “reward” whites for voting Republican.
Race Factor Denied
Justice Department officials deny that race or politics play any role in the probe. In fact, they say, the investigation was prompted by complaints of absentee voting fraud from black residents in the area.
The department undertook the Black Belt probe under a policy adopted in the summer of 1984 by its top officials, including William Bradford Reynolds, chief civil rights enforcer, and Stephen S. Trott, who oversees the criminal division.
The policy reversed a long-standing practice of initiating investigations of vote fraud allegations only when the outcome of the election might have been affected.
Under the new procedure, federal officials could begin to investigate “political participants” who “seek out the elderly, socially disadvantaged or the illiterate for the purpose of subjugating their electoral will.”
Black Complaints Cited
Deputy Asst. Atty. Gen. John C. Keeney told a congressional committee hearing on the controversy last week that voting in Perry County was under investigation because several blacks had complained.
“While all the defendants in this case were black, all the complainants were also black. Most important of all, however, is the fact that the voters victimized by the fraud were also all black citizens. We firmly believed that these persons had, in effect, been disenfranchised in the 1984 election, and accordingly sought to prosecute those whom the grand jury deemed responsible.”
The Perry County prosecutions resulted in the indictment of Albert Turner, his wife and another black activist. Turner is a prominent Black Belt political organizer who was in the forefront of the “Bloody Sunday” march 20 years ago over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, which sparked passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Federal prosecutors portrayed the case as one of civil rights workers gone wrong, altering and forging absentee ballots in vendettas against their local political enemies. In closing arguments of the Turners’ trial in Selma this summer, Assistant U.S. Atty. E. T. Rolison told jurors that the voting rights marchers of two decades ago “didn’t go across the bridge so Albert Turner could vote more than once in an election. Somewhere along the way since 1965, something has changed.”
The defendants never denied that they altered ballots, but maintained that they did so on the instructions of the voters--which is not illegal under Alabama law. They were cleared of all 29 counts against them. The jury of seven blacks and five whites returned the verdict after deliberating less than three hours.
Turner, 49, contends that “nothing in my life parallels what’s happened to me in the past year” as a result of the prosecution. “My promotion at the insurance company where I work was suspended; my wife was suspended without pay from her job in the district judge’s office; our house was mysteriously burned down halfway through the trial,” he said. “But the worst part of it all is the humiliation and mental cruelty we have gone through and are still suffering.”
“The white power structure is determined to turn back the hands of time and undo everything that black people in the Black Belt have worked so hard to gain,” he said.
In Greene County, the Justice Dept. said it had received several complaints about alleged voter fraud from blacks. One of the complaints came from Luther Winn, a county school board member who said that he had seen an application for an absentee ballot from a man he knew had moved to Okinawa, and the return address was that of a local political activist.
Hung Juries in Two Cases
Nevertheless, the trials of two defendants there--Mayor James Colvin, 30, of Union, and Bobbie Nell Simpson, 52, a Greene County employee and the only white indicted to date--both ended in hung juries, albeit in Colvin’s case by virtue of a single black juror holding out.
On Thursday, federal prosecutors in Tuscaloosa used all of their peremptory challenges to eliminate the six blacks from a pool of 47 prospective jurors called for the trial of Spiver Gordon, 46, and Frederick Daniels, 37, who are accused of improper use of absentee ballots in the same Greene County election. A defense motion to halt the trial as a result of the jury selection was turned down Friday by a federal appeals court.
“I think the government’s action was shameful,” said Gordon. He said the prosecution’s action was a sign of desperation.
“We’ve been complaining to the federal government for years about the white voter fraud in the Black Belt,” he said. “But when they finally come in, they only investigate the five counties where blacks are in control of the government and their chief targets are the black people who have been at the head of the voting rights struggle for all those years.”
Even if the Justice Department called off the investigation and dropped the remaining cases, black leaders say that the damage has been done to prospects for the kind of political gains they had hoped to begin making with the 1986 elections and the new redistricting.
Plan for Redistricting
“With the redistricting plan we were hoping to be able, for the first time, to elect some black district attorneys and black Circuit Court judges,” Turner said. “Imagine being black and being able to walk into a Black Belt courtroom some day with a black lawyer, a black district attorney, a black judge and a black jury.”
Most harmful, they say, will be the loss of those absentee voters, particularly the elderly, who may have been so intimidated by the Justice Department’s investigation that they are scared of handling another absentee ballot.
During the congressional testimony Thursday, the Rev. O. C. Dobynes of Marion, Ala., said a busload of blacks had been rounded up by FBI agents and local lawmen and taken to Mobile to testify about vote fraud before a grand jury. “It was the most degrading time of my life,” he said. He said that the witnesses were easily intimidated and that some of the elderly people became ill on the trip.
Absentees Swing Elections
The impact of absentee voting in the Black Belt is hard to underestimate. In the 1982 Democratic primary, for example, nearly 700 absentee ballots gave Perry County Sheriff James Hood, a black, the nomination over former Chief Deputy John A. Hughes, a white. Hughes had been ahead until the absentee votes were counted.
“We’re going to have a hard time getting those elderly people back to vote because they’re going to be afraid from now on,” said John Zippert, publisher of the weekly Greene County Democrat in Eutaw and co-chairman of the Alabama Black Belt Defense Committee. “We’re also going to have a great reluctance on the part of political volunteers to assist with absentee voters. And, you know, without absentee voters and without volunteers, it’s hard to win an election around here.”
Times Staff Writer Sarah Oates contributed to this story.