Smith v. Young Men's Christian Association of Montgomery

The Smith v. Young Men’s Christian Association of Montgomery case, argued in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, forced the Montgomery affiliate of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) to desegregate. The case stemmed from continuing efforts by the city of Montgomery to maintain segregated recreational facilities. When ordered to desegregate in 1957, city officials began transferring many recreational activities to the YMCA, which claimed that as a private group it was exempt from desegregation requirements. The case was filed in 1969 and decided in 1972, when the court ruled that the YMCA had violated the civil rights of the African American plaintiffs.

The Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sued on behalf of Vincent Smith and his cousin Edward Smith, who were denied admittance to the YMCA’s summer camp. The SPLC won the lawsuit after a secret 1958 agreement outlining a plan to maintain institutional racism between the city and the YMCA came to light. The district court, led by Chief Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., held that the city, by giving control to the YMCA, had turned the organization into a de facto branch of the city and thus could not be considered a private organization in this instance.

This case had its legal origins in the 1950s. Although segregation had been the social and cultural norm Jim Crow South, Montgomery city officials in June 1957 ordered the segregation of all city recreational facilities. After several African Americans successfully sued the city over this ordinance, in Gilmore v. City of Montgomery, in 1959, city officials chose to shutter facilities, including the Montgomery Zoo, rather than integrate them. They even filled in city pools with dirt. The privately held YMCA, which had been segregated since its founding in 1869, then started providing recreational services to whites in Montgomery. Throughout the 1960s, the Montgomery YMCA kept strict controls over its policies and membership, with less than two percent of YMCA members eligible to vote for the board of directors. New voting members had to be nominated by and approved by current voting members. Thus, the board remained all white, with no voting members being willing to nominate a black member.

YMCA membership boomed, growing from 1,000 in 1957, before the agreement, to 18,000 by the mid-1960s. YMCA branches and its eight swimming pools were wholly segregated. Three branches were all white and a fourth was all black and all activities, from sporting events to summer camps, were segregated. Football games were structured so that the champions from the all-white leagues played at a different championship game (held at a city facility) than the champions from the all-black leagues, who held their championship game on the campus of the local segregated all-black Alabama State College (present-day Alabama State University). Summer camp was only for whites. The YMCA did not advertise in black schools or even at its own blacks-only branch, and black children were not allowed to attend.

The SPLC sued in 1969, alleging that the YMCA violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The SPLC lawsuit detailed specific ways in which the city agreed to provide services to the YMCA, such as providing free water for its eight swimming pools and free use of the city’s parks, as well as allowing it to recruit members from the public schools of Montgomery. The specific instance addressed in the case involved an attempt by cousins Vincent Smith and Edward Smith to enroll in a summer camp in an all-white branch of the Montgomery YMCA. According to Edward Smith’s mother, the director refused to take the applications of the two youths. In court, the director first claimed that he had not received the applications, and then he claimed not to have authority to accept them. Like many supporters of institutional racism during that era, he also claimed that his actions were for the youths’ own good as they would be unhappy being the only blacks in an all-white environment. The boys were soon admitted to the camp but did not attend.

Despite their admittance, Judge Johnson ruled that the case should continue for benefit of other African Americans. While the court might have ruled in favor of the SPLC, it could just as easily have favored the YMCA, as private organizations typically have more freedom than municipalities in suits regarding the Fourteenth Amendment, which requires racial equality. Morris Dees‘s discovery of a secret written agreement while reviewing YMCA files changed the dynamics of the case. In it, the city transferred a park to the YMCA and established a secret non-compete agreement between the YMCA and the city that prevented city services from overlapping those offered by the YMCA. Because the agreement, made one week prior to the city closing its facilities, established an explicit and direct relationship between the two organizations, the YMCA was effectively turned into a recreational arm of the city of Montgomery. This connection allowed the court to rule in favor of the SPLC by using the stricter Fourteenth Amendment rules applied to government entities. The YMCA lost the case and had to offer blacks membership at all YMCA branches, recruit evenly, and build new and equal facilities.

Further Reading

  • Dees, Morris, and Steve Fiffer. A Season for Justice: The Life and Times of Civil Rights Lawyer Morris Dees. New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1991
  • —. A Lawyer’s Journey: The Morris Dees Story. Chicago: American Bar Association Publishing, 2001.

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