Black History Month and Columbus At-Large Political History

In 1965, the civil rights movement such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Council decided to make Selma, Alabama a focus of a Black voter registration campaign. 

On February 18th, a group of White segregationists attacked a group of peaceful protestors, and an Alabama State Trooper killed Jimmy Lee Jackson, a 26 year old Baptist minister from Marion, Alabama, who was one of the demonstrators, as Jackson attempted to shield his grandfather and mother.  Jackson had attempted to register to vote five times, before he was murdered.   In response to this killing the SNCC planned a march from Selma to Montgomery, and on March 7th, a group of about 600 marchers led by organizer Amelia Boynton and SNCC Chair (now congressman) John Lewis, met in Selma to begin the march.

The protestors got to the top of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, when they were confronted by Alabama State Troopers and other White who had been deputized just for the occasion.  On horseback, and with billyclubs, dogs, and tear gas, the troopers attacked the marchers.  Famously, Lewis and Boynton were knocked unconscious on the bridge.  The event, later termed “Bloody Sunday”,  was broadcast around the world and shocked the conscience of the nation.

Two days later, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other clergy from across the country started another march, although a court had forbiddden the march.  They were again confronted at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. This time, troopers stepped aside, but King, fearing a trap, after a moment of silence, turned the march around and went back to Selma.  

This second march became known as “Turnaround Tuesday.” That night, a young White Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, James Reeb, who came south to stand in solidarity with King and the voting rights activists, was beaten to death by a White segregationist.  King preached Reeb’s eulogy, and President Johnson mentioned the violence in Selma and referenced Reeb, while submitting his Voting Rights Act to Congress on March 15th ,  addressing a Joint Session of Congress, saying “Many were brutally assaulted; one good man, a man of God, was killed.”  Johnson continued, “There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem…Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negros, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

Governor Wallace tried to prevent another march, but a U.S. District Court Judge sanctioned it, and on March 20th, King and about 2,000 marchers again took off from Selma, but this time under federal protection.  Five days and fifty four miles later, on March 25th the marchers arrived at the Montgomery Courthouse.

The impact of the Selma to Montgomery march was significant.  In August, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The act banned literacy tests as a requirement for voting, mandated federal oversight of voter registration in areas where tests had previously been used and gave the U.S. attorney general the duty of challenging the use of poll taxes and other discriminatory measures in state and local elections.

One of the local election practices the act address, is at-large elections, such as those used for Columbus City Council since 1914.  At-large elections are elections where every councilmember runs in a citywide election, rather than running in a smaller council district.  The Voting Rights Act opposed this practice, which is designed to dilute minority votes, making geographically concentrated minorities unable to elect candidates of their own choosing when Whites vote as a block.  According to the Department of Justice, “Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups identified in Section 4(f)(2) of the Act. Most of the cases arising under Section 2 since its enactment involved challenges to at-large election schemes.”

In Columbus history, four Black councilmembers, starting with Rev. James Preston Poindexter in 1882, were elected in the district-based elections in place prior to the city’s 1914 charter which created the at-large election scheme.  This is not because Columbus was a bastion of racial harmony. In describing ward boundaries, the 1883 Columbus City Code  said the southern boundary of ward 7 was “Marion Road (commonly referred to as Nigger Lane”).

However, once the 1914 at-large charter was adopted, no Blacks were elected to city council until 1969 (Dr. James Rosemond).  The Voting Rights Act was having an effect on Columbus public officials, though. In March 1968, led by Mayor Sensenbrenner, every one of the five Democrats was joined by one of the two Republican councilmembers, voted to put a 13 member council led by districts on the ballot for adoption by voters (changes to council format must be voted by Columbus residents as an amendment to the city charter).  the Dispatch said “one of the goals of the measure was to provide representation for Negros which =ch currently have no voice on the city council” (Ward Representation Proposed for Council, Dispath, January 13, 1968).  Opponents said elections by district, instead of at-large, “could cause a loss of control over the council by the administration.”

The measure was voted down at the polls. (Backers of Enlarged Council Vow to Try Again: Biggest Disappointment Goes to Baumann and City Hall Democrats, Columbus Dispatch, May 8, 1968). After the loss, the chief proponent, Democrat James Baumann said “Every citizen deserves representation on council and Columbus will find a way to achieve this goal,” and fellow Democrats M.D. Portman and Jerry O’Shaughnessy immediately agreed.  City Hall Democrat Utilities Director William Brooks said “The Republicans are a well disciplined organization. They follow their party chairman—like sheep.” 

According to the Dispatch, “the amendment was generally successful in Negro precincts, but not by the margin hoped for.  O’Shaugnessey believed a portion of the negative vote may have been due to ‘…a certain amount of white backlash … a fear of some whites that Negroes would be on council.” 

However, the Republican Party Chair Schneider said his party would pledge “ to present a Negro candidate for council next year when three at-large seats will be up for grabs ‘…if we can find the right man.’” (Dispatch, Backers of Enlarged council…).  And indeed, in 1969 Democrat Dr. James Rosemond was elected to council – the first Black in 55 years since the charter was adopted. Rosemond remains the only Black Democrat initially elected to council in 105 years.  Every other Black council person has initially been appointed to office to fill a vacancy, then runs as an incumbent with full support of the political party and money from big business interests and wealthy White individuals; votes from the Black community are irrelevant to the initial appointment, party endorsement, and big donations.

This deliberate selection of Blacks to represent the Black community by Whites in power, and the troubling supplanting of the latent voting power of the Black community by political insiders and big money. Writing about the 1981 election campaign between Ben Espy and Earl Bradley,  “When Rosemond announced he would not be seeking a third term … it was a foregone conclusion that both political parties would seek election of a black councilman to take his place…what is surprising is that both parties chose candidates who have no discernable base of support in the traditional black political community” (“Seeking a ‘Black Seat’ on City Council,” Dave Garrick, Columbus Monthly , January 1981).  The article continues, saying “and thus far, neither candidate has managed to generate a groundswell of support in the black community.”

 Khari Enaharo, a Driving Park community leader said “it’s almost like a hopelessness that sets in once somebody continuously picks for you who will represent you” (p. 114). “The problem, as Espy sees it, is that the present city government is not structured in a way that makes it easy to identify needs on a neighborhood basis. ‘there is no way that a councilman elected at-large can be attuned to all areas of the city without some vehicle designed to assist him” (p. 120). “Normally, a Black Democrat can count on piling up a lot of votes in the black wards. Espy, no doubt, will do well there. But how well will depend on how much enthusiasm he can generate among fellow blacks. That enthusiasm has been slow developing.”(p. 121)

“The hottest issue in the black community in recent years has been alleged police brutality against blacks, and some blacks question how responsive Espy will be to their concerns since he has in the past served as legal  counsel to the  Fraternal Order of Police. Espy realizes that the fact that he h as not been seen in black leadership circles in the bity causes h im a problem in the black community. But he feels he can overcome that.  ‘In some parts of the black community, I think it is a fair comment to say that they don’t know me in term of their particular interest and need. I intend to make them know me.’” (p. 122)  Espy went on to an illustrious political career. The question for Columbus is, why is it appropriate to select Black leadership for the Black community, rather than letting the Blac community elect for itself?

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has expressed concerns about Columbus’s at-large election, writing a series of letters to Columbus officials in 2017 and 2018.  The storied civil rights law firm visted Columbus on two occasions, meeting with dozens of people and organizations. However, not a single councilmember, of the city attorney,  would meet with the group or attend its public forum at the African and African American Studies Community Extension Center.

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