Gomillion, Charles G.
Charles G. Gomillion
Civil rights activist
Charles Goode Gomillion is best known as a community activist with a strong interest in voter rights. His active involvement in voter rights for black Americans in the late 1950s, and eventually the lawsuit that led to the landmark Supreme Court case known as Gomillion v. Lightfoot, affected the nation and the South in regards to redistricting designed to circumvent the black vote.
Gomillion was born in Johnston, South Carolina in Edgefield County on April 1, 1900. His grandparents were born in slavery. His father, Charles, was born a slave in 1855 and remained a slave until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. His father married his mother Florence, who was twenty-two years his junior. Charles was the oldest of four children, having two sisters and a younger brother.
Gomillion's early education was limited. He attended the public schools from first to third grades only three months of each year. During the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, he attended school for five months. The public school system paid for three months and his parents paid for two months. In the seventh grade, he attended only four weeks and decided to drop out because he had problems with arithmetic. The next year he went back and was in the eighth grade. He attended only five weeks and dropped out because he was the only student.
Although his father never attended school or learned to read or write, his mother had gone through the third grade and was very interested in her children's education. After Gomillion dropped out of the eighth grade, his mother decided he knew enough to be home schooled. She borrowed old magazines and newspapers from neighbors, and encouraged all her children to read. Gomillion saved for two and a half years in order to attend Paine High School in Augusta, Georgia, to complete eighth grade. He also attended Paine College until 1922, when he married his college girlfriend, Hermyne Jones, then dropped out to help support his parents, both of whom had become disabled. For about a year, he worked in Philadelphia as a postal worker, then moved to Georgia to teach middle school. After about a five-year absence, he returned to Paine College and received his bachelor's degree at the age of twenty-eight.
Gomillion was hired as a faculty member at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1928. He moved there with his wife and two daughters, Vernita and Mary Gwendolyn. After a year, his wife left him, and he received custody of his daughters, ages five and six. Gomillion's co-workers described him as an intense man who always seemed to be concentrating deeply. In addition he earned the respect of onlookers for raising children alone. He remarried in 1936 and his second wife helped in the rearing of his two daughters.
In 1933, an old Paine College professor invited Gomillion to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee to conduct sociological research. At Fisk, Gomillion studied under the best sociologists of the time—Bertram W. Doyle, E. Franklin Frazier, and Charles S. Johnson. Under Johnson, he learned as much as he could about working with whites in the South and trying to bring blacks and whites together in order to lay a foundation for improving race relations. He took a year's leave of absence from Tuskegee Institute and returned in the fall of 1934 when he began teaching in the college's sociology department.
Gomillion returned to Fisk in 1936 for further studies in sociology. Gomillion also studied briefly at Chicago University and later attended Ohio State University where he received his doctorate in sociology in 1959.
In 1934, Gomillion was not considered a radical or an activist. However, after his return from Fisk, Gomillion became active in the Men's Club of Tuskegee, which was established in1910 to help improve public services around Tuskegee Institute. (Under Gomillion's leadership women were included in 1941.) The Men's Club consisted of faculty members from Tuskegee, teachers from the local school, and other local professional men. Members addressed community concerns such as sewerage, drainage, streets, credit institutions, and voting issues. As a club member Gomillion encouraged people to register to vote. He believed that many problems could be solved with increased political participation. But blacks were obstructed from participating by various strategies, for example the poll tax; white primary, intelligence tests; and the voucher system.
The poll tax was enacted in 1901 by the Alabama Constitution to keep blacks from registering to vote. The intelligence test purported to measure understanding of the United States Constitution; the test asked people to read or write portions of the Constitution. In 1875, white supremacists wrote a new constitution in Alabama that supported the white primary and manipulated the black vote for nearly twenty-five years. The voucher system required one or more white persons to vouch for the character of blacks who applied to register to vote. Gomillion expended a lot of effort trying to register to vote, but he was held up since people who agreed to vouch for him started backing out. In 1939, he applied again after a white contractor approached him about building a house. Gomillion agreed to let him build the house if he would vouch for him. The contractor agreed, and Gomillion became a registered voter after paying back poll taxes from 1928 to 1939. Gomillion's second wife became a registered voter in 1940 and also had to pay poll taxes of $1.50, covering the period from when she came to Macon County in 1936 to 1940.
In 1941, the Men's Club broadened the scope of its mission and changed its name to the Tuskegee Civic Association (TCA). Its main goals were to improve public services, to get equal opportunities for public education, and to heighten blacks' awareness of all community concerns. Gomillion believed that the citizens of Tuskegee had a civic duty to register and vote. The TCA started an active campaign to get blacks registered, pay their poll taxes, and make informed voting choices. At the start of the campaign there were about 75 registered black voters in the county. Over a period of nearly twenty years, the number increased to about 410. This increase was alarming to the white political powers of Alabama.
Gerrymandering to Eliminate Black Voters
Tuskegee is the county seat of Macon County and the home of Tuskegee Institute, which was founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881. On June 7, 1957, state representative Samuel Engelhardt convinced the Alabama legislature to redraw the boundaries of Tuskegee so that all but a handful of registered black voters were excluded from the city. (Redrawing voting districts for political purposes is called gerrymandering.) At this time the population of Tuskegee was 5,300 blacks and 1,400 whites with 410 black registered voters and 600 whites. All but twelve blacks were excluded by this line, but none of the whites were left out.
The original lines demarked a four-mile square. The new district lines had twenty-eight sides and took the shape of a sea dragon. On June 25, 1957, the Tuskegee Civic Association called a public meeting to discuss the redistricting. The decision was for blacks to boycott local merchants. The Macon Theatre was the first business to close as a result of the boycott. After a week, the protest was said to be 90 percent effective.
Gomillion and the Tuskegee Civic Association challenged the redistricting in court. A federal suit was filed seeking to bar mayor Phillip M. Lightfoot and other city officials from enforcing the state statutes on the grounds that it circumvented the Fifteenth Amendment's voting guarantees.
After losing twice in the lower courts, Gomillion took his case to the Supreme Court. In 1960, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fifteenth Amendment rights of Tuskegee blacks had been violated by the redistricting. The Supreme Court decision helped persuade Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
- Born in Johnston, South Carolina on April 1
- Marries Hermyne Jones
- Graduates from Paine College in Augusta, Georgia; joins the Tuskegee faculty
- Additional studies at Fisk University; leads effort to register blacks to vote
- Registered to vote in Macon County, Alabama
- Creates the Tuskegee Civic Association (formerly the Tuskegee Men's Club)
- Sues Tuskegee Mayor Phillip Lightfoot over gerrymandering
- Receives doctorate in sociology from Ohio State University
- The Supreme Court rules that the Fifteenth Amendment rights of Tuskegee blacks are violated by the gerrymander
- Retires from public life
- Retires from Tuskegee University
- Dies in Montgomery, Alabama on October 4
Gomillion did not initially believe in Booker T. Washington's philosophy about the future of blacks in the general society. The more he actively participated in civic concerns in Tuskegee and after his studies, he began to change his mind. However, he believed that political power was the means to the end. Gomillion briefly ventured into politics in 1964 when he ran for a seat on the school board and won.
In his lifetime, Charles G. Gomillion conducted research periodically He also was a field worker under Charles Johnson. His job was to interview Negro tenants in Mississippi and Texas to determine the extent to which they were receiving the surplus food that was being sent down for poor people and to what extent they were receiving financial support from certain acreages devoted to cotton. The study showed that some landlords were not being fair and were increasing the tenant's indebtedness rather than reducing it by the sum entitled.
Gomillion's professional career included serving as an instructor at Tuskegee High School and at the college from 1928 to 1944. From 1944 to 1949, he served as dean of the School of Education at Tuskegee. From 1949 to 1958, he was the institute's dean of students. From 1959 until he retired in 1971, he taught sociology.
Gomillion was active in many organizations at the local, state, and national levels. He was a life member of the Paine College National Alumni Association, a life member of the NAACP, and a member of the National Education Association, the Southern Sociological Association, and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. He also served as a member of the Alabama Council on Human Relations and was a member of the Advisory Board Committee on Civil Rights in the United States Department of Agriculture. He served on the board of directors of the Highlander Folk School and Southern Conference Education Fund.
For his community participation, he was the recipient of many honors and awards. In 1958, he received the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Man of the Year award. In 1965, Fisk University presented him with the Charles S. Johnson Award. At the Democratic conference in Alabama in 1975, he was presented the Lyndon Baines Johnson Freedom Award. In 1976, the Ohio State University Citation of Achievement was awarded to him, and in 1982, Paine College named him Alumnus of the Decade. In 1991, he was awarded the Distinguished Career Award for the practice of sociology by the American Sociological Association.
Gomillion was also the recipient of four honorary doctorate degrees, from Howard University in Washington, D.C., 1965; Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, 1967; Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1971; and Paine College of Augusta, Georgia in 1986.
Gomillion was a member of the Christian Methodist church from the age of fourteen. He was originally raised in the Baptist church but was allowed to attend the Colored Methodist Episcopal church when he and his siblings complained to their mother that the Sunday school teachers at the Baptist church refused to answer their questions. Gomillion became very active in the youth organization of the Methodist church, the Epworth League. He was so inspired by its motto, "Keep Everlastingly At It", that he adopted it as his personal credo.
Gomillion was proud of the landmark court decision, but he was more proud of the many young lives he influenced during his tenure at Tuskegee. In an interview in 1987, he stated that many of his students remained in touch with him. Gomillion retired from Tuskegee and moved to Washington, D.C. and Roebling, New Jersey. He lived there for almost twenty-five years before returning to Tuskegee. His wife Blondelia Elizabeth Graves Gomillion died in July 1992. He died on October 4, 1995 at a hospital in Montgomery, Alabama at the age of 95. A daughter, Gwendolyn, three grandchildren, and one great grandchild survived him.
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Orella Ramsey Brazile