John L. Cashin Jr.

John L. Cashin John Logan Cashin Jr. (1928-2011) played a key role in the civil rights movement in Huntsville, Madison County, and led the effort to establish the National Democratic Party of Alabama (NDPA) to counter efforts by the Alabama Democratic Party to prevent African Americans from running for office. Cashin also was the first African American to run for governor of Alabama since Reconstruction, in the 1970 race against George Wallace and was a driving force in political and economic gains for African Americans in Alabama during the 1960s and 1970s.

John Cashin Jr. was born in Huntsville on April 16, 1928, to John Logan Cashin Sr., a dentist, and Grace Brandon Cashin; he had an older brother. His grandfather Herschel V. Cashin was a lawyer who served as a Republican in the Alabama House of Representatives during Reconstruction and later in several federal appointee jobs in north Alabama. Cashin’s father opened a practice in Huntsville on Gallatin Street and served blacks and poor whites. Grace Cashin served for a time as a principal at West Clinton Junior High School. John and his brother Herschel spent their childhood in Huntsville’s black business district, where Grace’s father Claude owned Brandon’s Grocery and future civil rights leader Joseph Lowery‘s father LeRoy operated two pool halls. Cashin’s parents tried to shelter the boys from racism, but at the age of eight or nine John was doused with water by the white owner of a model airplane shop he regularly frequented and was warned by his parents to stay away. As an adult, Cashin became a private pilot.

John Jr. and his brother Herschel initially attended William Hooper Councill High School but transferred to Alabama A&M High School in 1942. By 1944, both brothers were attending Fisk University in Nashville, an HBCU where other leaders of the civil rights movement would study, including John Lewis and Diane Nash. In the spring of 1945, the brothers joined the Omega Psi Chi fraternity. John was soon expelled for hosting a non-sanctioned party with a sorority and was accepted to the neighboring Tennessee Arts and Industries University (present-day Tennessee State University) based on his ability to play trumpet. He joined their band, the Collegians, and gained his first experience at organizing people when the Collegians were included a poll conducted by the Pittsburgh Courier to choose the best black collegiate marching band in the nation. He printed 35,000 ballots and distributed them around the Southeast, and, as a result, the Collegians won 75 percent of the vote.

Cashin earned a degree in natural science from Tennessee and in 1948 was accepted to the dental program at Meharry Medical College, his father’s alma mater, graduating in 1952. He was immediately drafted into the U.S. Army, where he was commissioned as a first lieutenant and served as chief of dental services for soldiers stationed near Fountainebleau, France. Cashin befriended several African American expatriates in France, including writer James Baldwin, who were welcomed by the French as racial tensions increased in the United States. Cashin then returned to Huntsville and joined his father’s dentistry practice. On October 12, 1957, Cashin married Joan Carpenter, whom he had met at Fisk, in Birmingham, Jefferson County. The couple would have four children, one of whom died in infancy.

Integrating Huntsville

In the late 1950s, Cashin began to confront segregation in Huntsville. He and fellow Meharry graduate Harold Drake, who would become the first African American doctor on the staff of Huntsville Hospital, successfully integrated a new municipal golf course and the public library in 1958. Cashin, physician Sonnie Hereford III, minister Ezekiel Bell, and others formed the Community Service Committee (CSC) in early 1962 to organize movement events. It raised funds to bail students out of prison arrested during the January 1962 sit ins, assisted Congress of Racial Equality members (CORE) in organizing prayer marches and picket lines at stores discriminating against African Americans, and urged Huntsville mayor Robert B. Searcy to address segregation.

Efforts to raise national awareness of segregation in Huntsville continued. Cashin, his wife, and several other activists participated in a lunch counter sit-in on April 11, 1962, and were arrested, an event that was reported on by national media. With that national attention, the CSC began a boycott of segregated stores during the Easter shopping season, costing local retailers more than $1 million in profits.

In late June, Cashin and his wife took six Alabama A&M University students to the New York Stock Exchange to pass out flyers stating that investing in Huntsville was investing in segregation. Hereford, Bell, and others travelled to the Midwest Stock Exchange in Chicago to do the same. These protests were reported by the Associated Press and in early July, Mayor Searcy formed a bi-racial committee to negotiate desegregation with store managers. On July 9, 1962, the committee began a three-day trial period of desegregating lunch counters, in addition to the pediatric ward of the Huntsville Hospital at the urging of physician Sonnie Hereford. The city would soon begin to racially integrate most of its public facilities.

Discrimination in Huntsville still persisted, however. In May 1962, nine African American candidates, including Cashin, ran for county offices through the Madison County Democratic Party in May 1962, but the party’s official voting roster listed only white candidates. Cashin ran for mayor in 1964, and again he and other black candidates were excluded from the ballot. During this time, Cashin and others helped fund legal efforts to integrate the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). As a result, NASA employee Dave M. McGlathery was quietly admitted to UAH on June 13, 1963, two days after James Hood and Vivian Malone were enrolled at the University of Alabama. On September 9, 1963, four African American youths were admitted to the Huntsville public school system, including Sonnie Hereford IV at Fifth Avenue School. Receiving little notice was a local African American Catholic school, St. Joseph’s Mission, accepting 12 white students on September 3—reportedly the first case of elementary school integration in the state.

Founding the NDPA

In 1968, Cashin, several white friends from their Unitarian Universalist congregation, and noted Birmingham African American civil rights attorney Orzell Billingsley Jr. founded the National Democratic Party of Alabama. NDPA chapters formed in Huntsville, Birmingham, and Mobile, Mobile County, as well as 17 Black Belt counties. NDPA coordinators used an eagle as their symbol and held meetings throughout the Black Belt to register voters. Seventeen NDPA candidates won in the Black Belt, including five justices of the peace, three constables, and the chairman of the board of education in Marengo County. In Greene County, however, Judge James Dennis Herndon left NDPA candidates off the ballot, and Cashin took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices ruled in favor of the NDPA. A second election was held in July 1969 and despite racial intimidation, the NDPA candidates for probate judge and sheriff won by a narrow margin of 200 votes. In 1970, Cashin himself ran as the NDPA candidate in the gubernatorial race against George Wallace, finishing second to Wallace with 14.6 percent of the vote. NDPA candidates continued to win elections in western Alabama in 1972, 1974, and 1976. But by the mid-1970s, the Democrats had softened their stance on integration, and the NDPA subsequently dissolved in 1976.

Cashin had invested the majority of his family’s savings in the NDPA and other civil rights crusades and faced financial troubles as a result. Most notable was a loan to Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad to resurrect his goal of developing a self-sustaining African American agricultural community. In 1969, Muhammed purchased a 376-acre farm in St. Clair County from state senator Ray Wyatt, much to the worry of state officials and local citizens. After 30 of the farm’s cattle were poisoned and shot, allegedly by local Ku Klux Klan members, Muhammad turned to Cashin to find another area in Alabama to develop a similar project. Cashin found a tract in Greene County and raised $243,000 to purchase it with the help of Billingsley. Muhammad promised to pay Cashin back with interest but died before that happened. Cashin’s actions caught the attention of the FBI, which was investigating connections between black nationalism and African American political organizations. In 1970, the Internal Revenue Service charged Cashin with owing $780,000 in back taxes but later greatly reduced the amount. Billingsley too was enmeshed in legal trouble for helping the group but was exonerated. In April 1982, Cashin was convicted of perjury in a New York federal court for giving false statements to a judge while attempting to arrange bail for a narcotics dealer. Later that month, Cashin also pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree fraud for cashing his mother’s Social Security and pension checks for several years after her death and was sentenced to 17 months in prison.

Cashin died from kidney failure on March 21, 2011, in Washington, D.C., and was buried in Northside Cemetery in Huntsville. Despite his legal troubles, Cashin left a strong legacy as a civil rights leader in Alabama. His first wife, Joan Carpenter, had died in 1997, and he was survived by his second wife Louise White Cashin, whom he married in 1998. His daughter Sheryll Cashin is a renowned professor at Georgetown University Law Center and has written several notable works on race relations.

Further Reading

  • Cashin, Sheryll. The Agitator’s Daughter: A Memoir of Four Generations of One Extraordinary African-American Family. New York City: Public Affairs, 2008.
  • Frye, Hardy T. Black Parties and Political Power: A Case Study. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.
  • Paul, Richard, and Steven Moss. We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.

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