Black History Month and Columbus At-Large Political History

In 1965, the civil rights organizations 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 of that year, a group of White segregationists attacked a group of peaceful protesters, and an Alabama State Trooper killed Jimmy Lee Jackson, a 26 year old Baptist minister and veteran from Marion, Alabama, who was one of the demonstrators, as Jackson attempted to shield his grandfather and mother from the attack by sheltering in a cafe.  Jackson had attempted to register to vote five times, before he was murdered by state trooper James Fowler, who admitted to the shooting and was finally convicted in 2005 and released after 5 months in jail.  While Jackson lay dying in the hospital, he was served with an arrest warrant by the Alabama State Police. 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 organizers Amelia Boynton, James Bevel, and SNCC Chair (now congressman) John Lewis, met in Selma to begin the march.

Jimmy Lee Jackson
Peaceful demonstrators leaving Selma, on their way to the Edmund Pettus Bridge

The protesters got to the top of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, when they were confronted by Alabama State Troopers and other Whites who had been deputized just for the occasion.  On horseback, and with billyclubs, rubber tubes wrapped in barbed wire, dogs, and tear gas, the troopers and posse 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.

SNCC Chairman John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge before the assault
Troopers begin their advance on peaceful protesters on “Bloody Sunday” – John Lewis in beige overcoat.
Civil Rights heroine and march organizer Amelia Boynton lies unconscious on the Edmund Pettus Bridge
Congressman John Lewis attacked and dazed with a split skull, on “Bloody Sunday”

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.  

The beaten civil rights demonstrators, in the aftermath of the “Bloody Sunday” attack on marchers

This second march became known as “Turnaround Tuesday.” Later 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. Johnson addressed 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.”

Newspaper Coverage of the Events

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 violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the march from Selma to Montgomery 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.

President Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965

One of the local election practices the act addresses, 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 potential discriminatory practice, which has the effect of diluting 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” ( https://www.justice.gov/crt/section-2-voting-rights-act ).

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 the 1880’s, in fact, 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”).

Rev. James Preston Poindexter, Columbus’s first Black city councilmember, circa 1882

However, once the 1914 at-large charter was adopted, no Blacks were again elected to city council until 1969 (Dr. James Rosemond).  Rosemond’s election came about in large part because of the consciousness raised by the Voting Rights Act, which was already having an effect on Columbus public officials. In March 1968, led by Mayor Sensenbrenner, every one of the five Democrats was joined by one of the two Republican councilmembers, in voting to put a 13 member council led by 7 members elected by district 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 at the time: “one of the goals of the measure was to provide representation for Negros which currently have no voice on the city council” (Ward Representation Proposed for Council, Dispatch, January 13, 1968).  Opponents said elections by district, instead of at-large elections, “could cause a loss of control over the council by the administration.”

Dispatch article from January 1968, evidencing the impact of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
March 1968 Dispatch headline about the ward-led issue being proposed by City Hall Democrats

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 about the opposition, “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 at-large charter was adopted. Rosemond remains the only Black Democrat initially elected to council in 105 years (Republican Jennette Bradley was initially elected in 1991). 

To get around the failure of Black Democrats at the polls, every other Black council person since 1969 has initially been appointed to office to fill a vacancy, then runs for the first time as an incumbent with full support of the political party and money from big business interests and wealthy White individuals. In short, votes from the Black community are irrelevant to the initial appointment, party endorsement, and big donations.

By 1975, the first African American councilmember, Dr. Rosemond, proposed a ward led city council during his run for Mayor. Both he, and the measure, were defeated at the polls.

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 has been apparent for decades. Writing about the 1981 election campaign between Ben Espy and Earl Bradley, Dave Garrick wrote for Columbus Monthly, saying: “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 in that 1991 article, “it’s almost like a hopelessness that sets in once somebody continuously picks for you who will represent you” (p. 114). Candidate Ben Espy was quoted as saying “The problem… 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). The article explained, “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)

In exposing the conflicts involved in the selection of Espy, the article says “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 has not been seen in black leadership circles in the city causes him 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, of course, went on to an illustrious political career ending as an Ohio State Senator. The question for Columbus is, why is it appropriate to select Black leadership for the Black community, rather than letting the Black 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 ( https://www.naacpldf.org/press-release/ldf-sends-letter-to-columbus-city-council-over-at-large-electoral-method ).  In a November 17, 2017 letter to City Attorney Zach Klein, the LDF wrote ” In Thornburg v. Gingles, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that ‘special circumstances, such as the absence of an opponent [and] incumbency,’ do not diminish the need for systemic reform. Consistent with that recognition, courts have found that appointments of minority individuals to elected positions in an at-large voting system may be indicative of impermissible vote dilution under Section 2. ”

The storied civil rights law firm founded by Thurgood Marshall visited Columbus on two occasions, meeting with dozens of people and organizations. However, not a single councilmember, or the city attorney, or official of the Franklin County Democratic Party would meet with the group or attend its public forum at the African and African American Studies Community Extension Center. This sees to be a shameful civil rights record for a majority Black city council chaired by an African American (Shannon Hardin). In fact, it was Hardin who then pushed in 2018 for an expansion of the at-large scheme, by pushing to the ballot a scheme where members beginning in 2024 would live in one of nine districts, but would continue to be voted upon at-large — again, a position at odds with Black political enfranchisement. I

And in 2018, seemingly predicting the irrelevance of Columbus voters to the appointment and promotion practices of the elite for Black politicians that follow the minority vote dilution script, Columbus Monthly wrote ” Since he was a kid, Shannon Hardin has been groomed to follow in the footsteps of his mentor, former Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman” (“Who’s Next: Shannon Hardin, Columbus City Council President”, Dave Ghose, Columbus Monthly, January 23, 2018).

Shannon Hardin, council president initially appointed in 2014, who refused to meet with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and continued to push for an expansion of racially discriminatory at-large voting over that organization’s concerns about the practice.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund wrote in its November 17, 2017 letter: “Indeed, Columbus has been reputed to have informally recognized a ‘Black male’ seat (occupied initially by James Roseboro and Jerry Hammond, for which, after Ben Espy resigned, Michael Coleman, Fred Ransier, Kevin Boyce, Troy Miller, and Shannon Hardin – all Black males, were subsequently appointed). In recognizing the history of the city council making mid-term appointments of Black men to that seat, Franklin County Democratic Party chairman Dennis White said: “they’ve had a tradition of doing that, and it seems as if that has worked out.”

Columbus has maintained the illusion of inclusion, through its appointment of Blacks to city council. That practice — essentially selling out the sacrifices of Bloody Sunday for individual political gain — thwarts the very goals of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is designed to empower the Black electorate, not promote the careers of Black politicians. It is past time to stop this shameful practice of at-large elections. Black History is not just a month in a year … it is on-going: Join us for change.

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