Monday, Dec. 22, 1958
The two men facing each other across a brace of microphones and a polished table in Montgomery, Ala. were deeply disturbed. Farmer Aaron Sellers, of Bullock County, a Negro, told of six attempts to register as an Alabama voter and six failures, including a time when he was warned, "Get the hell out of here." Behind the table, as Sellers' testimony ended, the president of the University of Notre Dame leaned grimly forward. Asked the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh: "Mr. Sellers, you going to continue to attempt to register?" Answered Sellers: "Yes, I'm determined to register." Said Father Hesburgh, smiling: "God bless you."
As Farmer Sellers, 37th and final Negro witness at a two-day fact-finding hearing of the Federal Civil Rights Commission, concluded his testimony last week, Father Hesburgh was not the only disturbed member of the six-man commission. Authorized 15 months ago by Congress, the panel had been hand-picked by the White House, with an oversensitive attention to balance between three Northerners and three Southerners.
But after a parade of helpful Negroes and hostile whites into the paneled appeals courtroom on the fourth floor of Montgomery's Federal Building last week, even Southern members seemed discomfited by the reach and callousness of Alabama's discrimination. Said Commissioner John S. Battle, onetime (1950-54) Governor of Virginia and a leading advocate of segregation in public schools: "I fear the officials of Alabama and certain counties made an error in doing that which appears to be an attempt to cover up their actions . . . Punitive legislation may be passed which will be disastrous to the way of life of us in Virginia and you in Alabama."
"My Writing is Bad." The Negro witnesses' stories of Alabama's way of life in the mid-20th century called for action of some sort. Samples of discrimination:
¶ Fidelia Joann Adams, 21, postgraduate student in organic chemistry at Macon County's famed Tuskegee Institute, stood in a snail-paced Negro line while registrars processed applicants two at a time (whites meanwhile whizzed through twelve at a time), was eventually told to copy the second article of the Constitution, accomplished the job in one hour on 8½ longhand pages, was told to go home. She never heard from the registrars again, is barred from voting.
¶ The Rev. Kenneth Leroy Buford, 41, College of the City of New York graduate and a former New Jersey and California voter, was ordered to answer a series of questions, missed one, was disqualified on the spot.
¶ Farmer Andrew Jones said he tried to register in Barbour County, was refused because ''my writing is bad."
¶ Housewife Margaret Frost said that she and two friends tried to register together, were asked questions on government, were all sent home to "study some more" after one of the three missed a question, but were not told what to study.
By such techniques Negro registrations in lower Alabama's six-county "Black Belt" have been kept at county ratios as bad as these:
Lowndes Macon Wilcox
White Pop. 3,214 4,777 4,912
Negro Pop. 14,804 25,784 18,564
Whites Regis. 2,306 3,016 3,183
Negroes Regis. 0 1,100 0
Negro Voters 0 968 0
Turning to white voting officials for an explanation, the commission, chaired by Michigan State University President John A. Hannah, got meager cooperation. Of 14 officials subpoenaed for the hearing, six refused to appear. Others, like Macon County Probate Judge William Varner, 70, came, but were studiously circumloquacious. Varner did not know how many voters were on Macon County's rolls, had never seen a registration form. But he was certain there was no discrimination; white and Negro applicants filled out the same form. Snapped former Assistant Labor Secretary J. Ernest Wilkins, Negro member of the commission: "How would you know if you never saw them?" Replied Varner, flushing: "That's a ridiculous question."
Ear to Mouth. Back of the hostility of Varner and other white witnesses was the man calling their shots. Prompting from a front-row seat was Alabama's attorney general and Governor-elect, John Patterson, 37. Patterson, at hearing's start, had tried to protest federal meddling in state business, had been gaveled into silence by Vice Chairman Robert G. Storey, dean of Southern Methodist University's law school, and principal interrogator for the commission. Thereafter Patterson counseled witnesses into obstinacy.
After eight white witnesses had hedged, Chairman Hannah called a recess, turned the record over to the Justice Department. In a studied display of overnight speed, Federal Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. next day ordered six of the most recalcitrant to testify and produce records at another hearing this week. Alabama-born-and-bred Judge Johnson's threat if they did not: jail terms for contempt of court.