Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Written by Robert A. Caro in 2002
The introduction of Caro's book gives an informative look at voting in the south in 1957
The room on the first floor of the Barbour County Courthouse in the little town of Eufaula, Alabama, was normally the County Clerk's Office, but after it had closed for the day on August 2, 1957, it was being used by the county's Board of Registrars, the body that registered citizens so they could vote in elections-not that the Board was going to register any of the three persons who were applying that day, for the skin of these applicants was black.
It was not a large room, and it was furnished very plainly. Its walls, white and in need of a fresh coat of paint, were adorned only by black-and-white photographs of former county officials. Against the rear wall stood a row of battered old filing cabinets that contained records of deeds and mortgages and applications for driver's licenses, and in front of the cabinets were six small, utilitarian gray metal office desks, each with a small, worn chair. Then there was a waist-high wooden counter at which people doing business with the County Clerk's Office usually stood.
Today, the three registrars were standing behind the counter, and the applicants were standing in the bare space in front of it. No one offered them a chair, and the registrars didn't bother to pull up chairs for themselves, because the hearing wasn't going to take very long. Trying to register to vote took courage for black people in Alabama in 1957, even when physical intimidation or violence wasn't employed to discourage them-as it often was. Everyone knew about black men who had registered and who shortly thereafter had been told by their employers that they no longer had a job, or about black farmers who, the following spring, went to the bank as usual for their annual "crop loan"-the advance they needed to buy the seed for the crop they were planning to plant that year-only to be informed that this year there would be no loan, and who had therefore lost their farms, and had had to load their wives and children into their rundown cars and drive away, sometimes with no place to go. Indeed, David Frost, the husband of Margaret Frost, one of the three applicants that August day, would never forget how, after he himself had registered some years before, a white man had told him that "the white folks are the nigger's friend as long as the nigger stays in his place," but that "I had got out of my place if I was going to vote along with the white man," and how, for months thereafter, instead of calling him "David" or "Boy" as they usually did, white people called him by the word he "just hated, hated": "Nigger"-pronounced in Alabama dialect, "Nigra"-and how, when they learned he was planning to actually vote, a car filled with men had stopped in front of his house one night and shot out the porch lights, and how, cowering inside, he had thought of calling the police, until, as the car drove away, he saw it was a police car.
And of course there was the humiliation of the registration hearings themselves. Many county Boards of Registrars required black applicants to pass an oral test before they would be given the certificate of registration that would make them eligible to vote, and the questions were often on the hard side-name all of Alabama's sixty-seven county judges; what was the date Oklahoma was admitted to the Union?-and sometimes very hard indeed: How many bubbles in a bar of soap?
The Barbour County registrars used a less sophisticated technique. They asked more reasonable questions-the names of local, state, and national officials-but if an applicant missed even one question, he would not be given the application that had to be filled out before he could receive a certificate, and somehow, even if a black applicant felt sure he had answered every question correctly, often the registrars would say there was one he had missed, although they would refuse to tell him which it was. Margaret Frost had already experienced this technique, for she had tried to register before-in January of 1957-and forty years later, when she was an elderly woman, she could still remember how, after she had answered several questions, the Board's chairman, William (Beel) Stokes, had told her she had missed one, adding, "You all go home and study a little more," and she could still remember how carefully blank the faces of Stokes and his two colleagues had been, the amusement showing only in their eyes.
Nonetheless, despite the humiliation of her earlier hearing in the County Clerk's Office, Mrs. Frost-a soft-spoken woman of thirty-eight-had returned to that dingy room to stand in front of that counter again. "I was scared I would do something wrong," she recalls. "I was nervous. Shaky. Scared that the white people would do something to me." But, she says, "I wanted to be a citizen," truly a part of her country, and she felt that voting was part of being a citizen. "I figure all citizens, you know, should be able to vote." In the months since January, she had, with her husband asking her questions, studied, over and over, all the questions she felt the Board might ask, until she thought she would be able to answer every one. And on August 2, she put on her best clothes and went down to the courthouse again.
As it turned out, however, the diligence with which Margaret Frost had studied turned out to be irrelevant, because the Board examined her and the two other applicants as a group, and one of them wasn't as well prepared as she.
When she asked Stokes for an application, he said, "There's twelve questions you have to answer before we give you an application." He asked just two. Mrs. Frost answered them both correctly, as did one of the other applicants. But the third applicant answered the second question incorrectly, and Stokes told them that therefore they had all failed. "You all go home and study a little more," he said.
Margaret Frost left the room quietly, and she never sued or took any other legal action to try to force the Board to register her. Doing so, however, would almost certainly not have helped. In August, 1957, black Americans in the South who were denied the right to vote, and who asked a lawyer (if they could find a lawyer who would take their case) what law would assist them to do so, were informed that there was no such law-and that information was accurate. Summarizing the situation, a study made that same year by the United States Department of Justice concluded that "There is no adequate legal remedy" for a person who had been denied a registration certificate by a county Board of Registrars.
The scene that had occurred in the Eufaula courthouse was not an unusual one in the American South in 1957. After the Civil War almost a century before, there had been an attempt to make black Americans more a part of their country, to give them the basic rights of citizens-which included, of course, a citizen's right to vote-and in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution had supposedly guaranteed that right, forbidding any state to "deny or abridge" the "right of citizens … to vote" because of their race or color. But the amendment proved to be an insufficient guarantee in the eleven southern states that had seceded from the Union and formed the rebel Confederacy; specific laws to give the amendment force and make it meaningful-federal laws, since there was no realistic possibility that any southern state would pass an effective statute-were going to be necessary. During the eighty-seven years since the Fifteenth Amendment had been ratified, scores, indeed hundreds, of proposed federal laws had been introduced in the Congress of the United States to ensure that black Americans would have in fact as well as theory the right to vote. Not one of these bills had passed. And in Barbour County, in which there were approximately equal numbers of black Americans and white Americans, out of 7,158 blacks of voting age in 1957, exactly 200-one out of thirty-five-had the right to vote, while 6,521 whites had that right. In Alabama as a whole, out of 516,336 blacks who were eligible to vote, only 52,336-little more than one out of ten-had managed to register. For the eleven southern states as a whole, out of more than six million blacks eligible to vote, only 1,200,000-one out of five-had registered. And of course, even those blacks who had registered to vote often didn't dare go to the polls to cast ballots, because of fear of violence or economic retaliation.
In 1957, there were scores of counties in the South which had tens of thousands of black residents, but in which, in some elections, not a single vote had been cast by a black.
Southern Suffrage in 1957
Top of Page | Back