Dallas County Voters League

Amelia Boynton, 1958 Often overlooked for its contributions to the struggle for voting rights, the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) of Selma, Dallas County, was best known for its work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the voter registration campaigns in Selma during the early 1960s. DCVL leaders such as Amelia Boynton Robinson also were involved in the planning and execution of the aborted March 7, 1965, Selma to Montgomery march and were present for the beginning of that march, also known as “Bloody Sunday.”

The DCVL was founded in the 1920s by Charles J. Adams, a postal service employee, public notary, and Selma representative for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), for which he established a Dallas County chapter in 1918. Sometime after, Adams founded the DCVL to tackle issues specific to racial discrimination in voter registration in Dallas County and its surrounding area. Although the Fifteenth Amendment granted Black males the right to vote in 1870, those rights were largely eroded by Alabama’s 1901 Constitution. The Constitution granted all-white state-appointed registrars considerable discretion in their official duties which they used to prevent African Americans from voting in the state of Alabama. Registrars decided when offices were open, how to judge the answers to literacy tests and a lengthy questionnaire, and ultimately whether applicants were qualified to vote.

In its early years, the DCVL attracted few members because of Selma’s and Dallas County’s oppressive racial atmosphere, which actively discouraged African Americans from registering to vote. Adams drew unwanted attention for his role as an NAACP representative, DCVL president, and for helping veterans fill out benefit forms. He was imprisoned several times for falsifying documents in his role as a notary. While some charges may have had merit, Adams seemed to have been targeted for his civil rights work and he moved to Detroit in 1948 to avoid further trouble with law enforcement. Sam Boynton then took over as DCVL president and NAACP representative. Boynton and his wife, Amelia, had worked as county extension agents during the Great Depression and later opened an insurance office, which allowed them to maintain economic independence from white employers. Their insurance office became a meeting place for the DCVL, which remained mostly inactive until the Montgomery bus boycott in 1954.

Frederick D. Reese The DCVL was then revived by an eight-member steering committee later known as the “Courageous Eight.” It included Amelia Boynton, Ulysses S. Blackmon, James E. Gildersleeve, Frederick D. Reese, John D. Hunter, Henry Shannon, Earnest Doyle, and Maria Foster, all of whom attempted to register African Americans in Selma and Dallas County to vote. Foster, a dental hygienist, is credited by several historians with later establishing “citizenship classes” to teach applicants how to fill out voter questionnaires. In 1958, members of the DCVL, including Amelia and Sam Boynton, also testified to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in Montgomery, Montgomery County, about the lack of Black voting rights in Alabama and the economic discrimination they faced if they tried to register. The Commission had been formed in 1957 to investigate complaints of race-based voter discrimination, evaluate relevant federal laws, and report findings to Congress and the U.S. president. It would report, in 1961 for instance, that in 1960 only 130 out of 15,115 eligible Black voters in Dallas County were registered to vote. In the late 1950s, Amelia Boynton began to take on more visible leadership roles in the DCVL after Sam began to suffer from a series of strokes.

In 1962, as part of her increasing leadership responsibilities, Amelia Boynton contacted various civil rights organizations and asked them to send activists to Selma to help revitalize voter registration efforts in the area. In response, the Voter Education Project, an effort overseen by the Atlanta-based racial equality group Southern Regional Council, sent SNCC fieldworkers to Selma to determine whether a project would be successful in Dallas County. Despite Selma’s infamously oppressive racial atmosphere, SNCC fieldworkers Bernard and Colia LaFayette agreed to travel to Selma to aid the DCVL.

The LaFayettes began the SNCC voter registration campaign in February 1963, though their initial efforts were rebuffed by those DCVL members who disagreed with SNCC’s direct action tactics like sit-ins and demonstrations. Initially, the LaFayettes held house meetings with DCVL members to support their voter registration campaign to avoid suspicion from Selma police and Selma’s very active and staunchly segregationist White Citizens’ Council. In May 1963, Sam Boyton died, and high school teacher and future pastor Frederick D. Reese became the DCVL’s new president. DCVL planned a memorial service for Boynton at Tabernacle Baptist Church, but the service was in fact the first voter registration mass meeting held in Selma. With SNCC’s help, the DCVL began to prepare for sit-ins and demonstrations protesting racial discrimination in voter registration.

DCVL members who opposed SNCC’s direct action tactics formed the Dallas County Improvement Association (DCIA), which used less “provocative” tactics. The DCIA petitioned Selma’s mayor, Chris Heinz, to pay Black workers a living wage and to consider Black workers for positions typically given to white employees. During that time, the DCVL also petitioned the mayor for full integration of Selma’s public facilities and requested that the city hire Black law enforcement officers and emergency responders. Heinz denied both groups’ petitions, and this denial resulted in the DCIA uniting with the DCVL and SNCC and participating in their 1963 demonstrations.

Throughout 1963, the DCVL organized courthouse demonstrations on voter registration days, and these demonstrations culminated on October 7, 1963, which they called Freedom Day. DCVL and SNCC envisioned Freedom Day as an opportunity to register to vote as many African Americans as possible in Selma. However, Selma’s registrars purposefully slowed down the registration process, resulting in hundreds of Selma’s Black residents lining up in front of the courthouse. Alabama state troopers were called in to assist Selma’s Sheriff ‘s Department officers, who were keeping activists from bringing food and water to the crowd. After Freedom Day, Selma’s White Citizens’ Council and Sheriff Jim Clark made it increasingly difficult for activists to continue direct-action protests. The White Citizens’ Council blacklisted demonstrators, often costing them jobs and homes, and frequent arrests depleted bail funds. All these forms of harassment lowered morale and resulted in falling attendance at the mass meetings. On July 9, 1964, Judge James Hare issued an injunction that forbade gatherings of three or more people associated with DCVL, SNCC, and SCLC, making it illegal for large groups to talk about civil rights and thereby halting DCVL weekly mass meetings. (The injunction also affected white nationalist groups and the Ku Klux Klan.) In November 1964, Reese wrote to Martin Luther King Jr. and the SCLC specifically for assistance in disobeying Judge Hare’s injunction and to help protest the Dallas County Board of Registrars.

King and Ralph David Abernathy drove from Atlanta to Selma on January 2, 1965, to announce a voter registration drive. That day, in conjunction with the SCLC, the DCVL decided to defy Judge Hare’s injunction by setting up a direct-action campaign. On January 18, 1965, King was back in Selma, and new demonstrations began, resulting in mass arrests of activists and demonstrators by Sheriff Clark the following day. On January 22, 1965, Reese and fellow teacher Margaret Moore gathered with other Selma teachers at Clark Elementary School to protest voter discrimination, at considerable risk of losing their jobs. They marched to the courthouse in small groups so as not to be in violation of Hare’s injunction, and Reese, Moore, and the teachers made three attempts to enter the courthouse to register to vote but were beaten back by local law enforcement each time. On February 1, King and Abernathy, along with several hundred other protesters, were arrested as King had planned, drawing national media attention to Selma. He also had the previously penned “A Letter from a Selma, Alabama, Jail” published in a New York Times advertisement several days after his arrest. On February 4, 1965, U.S. District Attorney Daniel H. Thomas issued another injunction and detailed new non-discriminatory procedures for Dallas County’s Board of Registrars.

After Judge Hare’s injunction in Dallas County, the SCLC directed its attention to voting discrimination in nearby counties. Activist Jimmie Lee Jackson‘s death on February 26 resulted in the SCLC and the DCVL planning a march from Selma to Montgomery to appeal to the governor for changes to Alabama’s voter-registration process. DCVL members were highly involved in organizing the March 7, 1965, Selma-to-Montgomery march, but law enforcement unleashed tear gas and beat demonstrators stopping the march. Amelia Boynton was one of 56 Black marchers hospitalized because of injuries sustained in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” (A multidisciplinary project at Auburn University aims to better document that day and may reveal other DCVL participants.) This event was followed by “Turnaround Tuesday” on March 9, when the march was aborted, and then the final successful march took place from March 21 to March 25.

The events of Bloody Sunday helped galvanize support for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The legislation resulted in nationwide reforms to the voting process and made the existence of groups such as the DCVL less relevant. The DCVL remained active in Selma politics for a few years after the Selma-to-Montgomery march, but the group was still plagued with attacks by the White Citizens’ Council and by internal fighting between moderate and radical activists. By the early 1970s, the DCVL was defunct, having served its purpose in creating greater voting opportunities for the Black citizens of Dallas County.

Additional Resources

Garrow, David J. Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978.

Lawson, Steven F. Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

Thornton, J. Mills. Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

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