United States v. Alabama

United States v. Alabama was a U.S. Supreme Court case argued and decided in 1960 that centered on federal intervention in local administration practices related to voting. It was an early attempt by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to overturn discriminatory voter registration practices. The case arose from litigation brought against the voting registrars of Macon County for depriving local African Americans of their voting rights through the use of an unfair literacy test.

Although the case did not result in such practices being overturned, it highlighted a problematic practice at the local level and helped publicize the process of federal and court actions regarding the issue of voting rights in the civil rights era. The case was filed as a result of powers granted to the U.S. attorney general under the Civil Rights Act of 1957. That law empowered the attorney general to act on behalf of persons wrongly deprived of their ability to vote and also created the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Labor. This case was only the second filed under the law (the first was in Georgia) and was only one of four such attempts at reforming voting in the South by the Justice Department prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1960.

The 1957 Act was the first piece of voting rights legislation passed by the U.S. Congress since the Enforcement Act of 1870, which implemented the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That amendment established, at least on paper, universal male suffrage (women attained the right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920). But in reality, the federal government's ability to guarantee the voting rights of African Americans was essentially nonexistent for almost a century after the Civil War. Parts of the 1870 Act were repealed in 1894, and the remaining provisions (which included power granted to the U.S. attorney general on issues of voting rights, as well as redress to the judiciary by citizens in these matters) were abandoned by 1911. Under the 1957 law, the federal government sought to remove racial inequities in the voting process. Specifically, concern arose over voting registration policies in Macon County, where 97.3 percent of the eligible white population was registered to vote (3,016 of 3,100) compared to only 7.8 percent of the eligible black population (1,100 out of 14,000). Even by 1961, less than 14 percent of the voting-age population of African Americans in Alabama was registered to vote, compared to nearly 64 percent of whites.

Attorneys from the Justice Department filed suit in Montgomery, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama against the Board of Registrars in Macon County. The basis for the claim against the county was the literacy test used to determine whether voters could be registered. Under Amendment 91 in section 181 of the Alabama State Constitution of 1901, all voters had to prove their qualification to vote in elections. This process included reading a passage of the U.S. Constitution and answering questions about it. Black and white voters, however, were not being treated equally in this process. (Literacy tests were later prohibited by the 1965 Voting Rights Act as a way to qualify voters.)

The complaint was later amended to also name the state of Alabama as a defendant. The district court judge, Frank M. Johnson Jr., ruled in favor of the county, finding that under Alabama law the responsible parties were the board members, not the board itself. The members in question, including one who belonged to the local White Citizens Council, had purposefully resigned so they could not be sued. Johnson ruled that not only did the members of the board have the right to resign at will, but that the board itself, as a collective entity, was not covered by the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Additionally, the 1957 law did not allow the Justice Department to pursue such cases against states. Johnson, incidentally, was praised by state officials for his uncharacteristic opposition to the plaintiffs' side in a civil rights case.

The federal government appealed the case to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the lower court ruling was upheld. The case was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that the act could apply to the state given the concurrent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which made voting records public, further strengthened the commission, and further empowered the attorney general in bringing suit against those obstructing the right to vote. The court ruled unanimously in an unsigned (per curiam) opinion.

This decision did not uphold the claims made against Macon County but rather opened the door for the federal government to take the case back to court. The Justice Department did so and with the power of the 1960 law behind it, successfully sued the state and the county in District Court, which ordered the cessation of discriminatory practices in Macon County. The case was appealed to the Fifth Circuit, and the District Court orders were upheld.

This case is best understood in the context of the political dispute over the role of the federal government in the context of civil rights policy. Later that year, the Supreme Court ruled in another case brought in Alabama, Gomillion v. Lightfoot, that the city of Tuskegee, Macon County, had unconstitutionally drawn its boundaries to ensure that only whites were elected to local offices. This lawsuit resulted in more federal control over state-run activities related to federally protected rights. United States v. Alabama and other early voting rights cases laid important groundwork for the later efforts that would lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Further Reading

  • Hawk, Barry E., and J. J. K., Jr. "Federal Protection of Negro Voting Rights." Virginia Law Review 51 (October 1965): 1051-1213.
  • McDonald, John C. 1961. "Judicial Protection of Minority Voting Rights: The Case for Constitutional Reform." Ohio State Law Journal 22, no. 2 (1961): 390-420.

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