One Organization, One Mission: NAACP Influence on Voting Rights in Georgia

| By Emily Gaines |

Fall, 2015

“He exercised his American right of voting. This type of intimidation aimed at preventing other American citizens from exercising their constitutional rights if permitted to go unpunished will make our constitution a farce.” [1]

On September 13, 1948, Thurgood Marshall, special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sent a telegram to Georgia Governor M.E. Thompson. Marshall urged the governor to assert his authority and “push vigorously” for the prosecution of Jim A. Johnson and Johnnie Johnson for the killing of Isaiah Nixon.[2] Five days earlier, Nixon, a 28-year-old African American man, was shot at his home a mile and a half outside of Alston, Georgia, and later died in an area hospital.  He had voted in the Georgia Democratic Party primary, which had been opened to blacks in 1946 when the U.S. Supreme Court ended the state’s whites-only primary.

On the same day Nixon was shot, Dover V. Carter, president of the local NAACP branch in Montgomery County, was brutally attacked by Johnnie Johnson and Thomas Wilson while transporting African Americans to and from the voting polls.[3] Nixon and Carter were active in getting people to register and vote in the Democratic primary; their efforts posed a threat to white political domination. The NAACP took a special interest in the violence surrounding this election; it would seek to use Nixon’s death to fundraise for the NAACP and cultivate support for its efforts to advance voting rights.

Isaiah Nixon and Dover Carter’s freedom to vote in the 1948 Georgia Democratic primary represented the successful effort of numerous groups committed to combating racism and securing the ballot. The NAACP, founded in New York on February 12, 1909, sought to “uplift the Negro men and women by securing for them the complete enjoyment of their rights as citizens, justice in the courts, and equal opportunity in every economic, social and political endeavor in the United States.”[4] Among its primary goals, the NAACP focused on eliminating barriers restricting the African-American vote. In addition to grassroots campaigns aimed at registering black voters, the NAACP employed legal strategies as instruments of social change. The combination of highly publicized legal battles and smaller, more local efforts propelled the NAACP to the forefront of the fight against racial injustices.

The NAACP was divided into its national office, state conferences, and local branches.[5] Headquartered in New York City, the national office sought to promote the mission of the NAACP, most frequently by taking on legal cases that were “most susceptible to the establishment of legal precedents in the field of Negro rights.”[6] State conferences served as an intermediary between the national office and local branches. They helped stimulate branch activity and aid in the organization of new branches. Field secretaries, too, helped conduct campaigns and assist in the organization of new branches.[7]  Local branches, however, were arguably the most essential element of the organization. In addition to increasing membership and awareness, they spearheaded local programs to improve the conditions within their communities.[8] While branches maintained a sense of autonomy from the national organization, they were expected to advance the NAACP mission and inform national headquarters when something particularly newsworthy occurred.

The 1948 Georgia Democratic primary was only the second statewide primary election in which African Americans were entitled to participate.  Prior to the 1940’s, many southern states had devised policies such as poll taxes, literary tests and the all-white primary to circumvent the Fifteenth Amendment and disenfranchise black citizens.[9] Since the NAACP’s inception, the organization’s leaders fought diligently to eliminate these impediments to voting. In the case Quinn v. United States (1915), the NAACP successfully challenged the legality of the grandfather clause, a policy that denied suffrage to black citizens and enfranchised poor whites by granting the right to vote to anyone whose grandfather could have voted prior to 1867.[10] In Smith v. Allwright (1944), Thurgood Marshall argued that the Democratic Party primary’s policy of prohibiting African Americans from voting was unconstitutional and allowed whites to dominate the politics of a one-party South. In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled, “The right to vote in a primary for the nomination of candidates without discrimination by the State, like the right to vote in a general election, is a right secured by the Constitution.”[11] Still, Georgia government officials thought they could get around the Supreme Court ruling by insisting that the Democratic Party was a private organization, thus authorizing members of the Democratic State Executive Committee to determine voter eligibility.[12] Primus E. King — a Columbus, Georgia, barber and, later, minister — with the support of the Citizens Democratic Clubs, a state association comprised of black, county-level organizations, challenged this assertion by attempting to cast a ballot in the 1944 primary.[13] When he was not allowed to vote, King sued in federal court. In 1945, a federal district judge ruled that Georgia’s all-white primary was unconstitutional, a ruling confirmed by a federal appeals court ruling in 1946. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, thus permanently eliminating the state’s all-white primary.

Prior to the 1946 Democratic primary, gubernatorial candidate Eugene Talmadge warned African Americans not to vote, threatening, “The first Negro to vote, will never vote again.”[14] Although more than 47 Georgia counties were predominately black, whites dominated voter registration.[15] NAACP members thus worked to promote the use of the ballot throughout the rural South. In addition to educating individuals about the importance of voting, the NAACP established citizenship schools to teach African Americans how to fill out registration forms and provided transportation for people to get to the polls on Election Day.[16] Though more African Americans voted than ever before, white supremacists continued to use tactics of intimidation and terror to scare black voters away from the polls.[17] Violence towards those who voted increased, too. Only three days after the 1946 primary, Maceo Snipes, the only African American to cast a ballot from Taylor County, Georgia, was murdered by a group of white men. His murderers were exonerated in court.[18]

In 1946, 179 NAACP branches were chartered in 28 states, increasing the total number of branches to 1,095.[19] In Montgomery County, 74 members enlisted during its first year (1946).[20] The following year, membership was drastically low until it increased during the final quarter of 1947.[21] It is likely that in the aftermath of Eugene Talmadge’s campaign to purge black voters, African Americans refrained from enrolling in the NAACP. However, the death of Talmadge in December 1946 after he had won the election slowly lightened the pall over the NAACP and African Americans began to feel less threatened. As political chaos ensued and the state planned for a special election, Georgia branches continued to develop their agenda. At the Sixth Annual Session of the State NAACP, representatives from 33 Georgia branches met in Savannah to discuss the political situation in Georgia as well as to establish a plan to get African Americans politically involved without the “usual statewide intimidation.”[22]As president of the Montgomery County branch, Carter attended the conference.[23]

According to the U.S. Census, 138,458 African Americans were registered to vote in the 1948 Georgia Democratic primary, with 738 of those in Montgomery County. [24] When Isaiah Nixon and Dover Carter awoke on September 8, 1948, they had one priority: voting. As members of the NAACP, Nixon and Carter had encouraged community members to vote, and even provided transportation for individuals to get to the polls. It is likely that Isaiah Nixon and Dover Carter were targeted because of the active role they played during the election.[25]

Upon learning of Isaiah Nixon’s death, Thurgood Marshall wrote to outgoing Governor M.E. Thompson requesting that he intervene and ensure that the guilty parties were prosecuted.[26] One day later, Franklin Williams, assistant special counsel at the NAACP, wrote to prominent Atlanta lawyer, A.T. Walden, requesting that Walden forward the national office a complete report concerning the matter.[27] During the time it would take A.T. Walden to furnish the report, the national office continued to pressure government officials to act on the case.

On September 18, 1948, a man named Franklin Douglas wrote to the NAACP requesting that it initiate a campaign to raise funds for the Nixon family. [28] In addition, the Georgia State Conference of Branches employed W.A. Dampier, a prominent African American lawyer from Dublin, Georgia, to assist the state in the prosecution.[29] While the local branches retained control over the intricacies of the case, the national office spearheaded the fundraising and media campaigns associated with the case.

Franklin Williams, along with the entire national organization, was most interested in the “terrific publicity value of these two incidents.” In a memorandum to NAACP leaders Walter White, Thurgood Marshall, Gloster Current and Henry Lee Moon, assistant secretary Roy Wilkins articulated the importance of capitalizing on this tragedy.  Wilkins suggested that, in addition to launching a campaign to support the Nixon family, the NAACP would benefit from launching a general crusade for voting rights, emphasizing the need for funds to carry on the fight beyond just Nixon’s case.[30] Franklin Williams agreed, stating that the incident “warrants the immediate attention of this office in the direction of obtaining additional publicity for the steps that the Association has already taken and may take in the future from a legal standpoint.”[31]

In 1948, the NAACP handled more than 400 legal cases nationally, excluding those that were handled directly by local branches. The organization prioritized Isaiah Nixon’s murder, as it was only one of three “lynchings” to occur that year.[32] To the NAACP, Isaiah Nixon represented the struggle and danger African Americans faced in choosing to vote. Ultimately, the Nixon family, the NAACP and the entire black community did not receive justice; Jim A. Johnson was found not guilty (by an all-white jury) and Johnnie Johnson’s case was dismissed.  The NAACP explored filing a civil suit on behalf of Sallie Nixon but never did. [33]

Edited by David Beasley

Works Cited

A.T. Walden to Francis H. Williams, “Re: Isaacc Nixon Case, D.V. Carter Case,” October 21, 1948 Papers of the NAACP, Part 04: Voting Rights Campaign, 1916-1950. History

Vault (001517-008-0285).

Franklin Douglas to NAACP. September 18, 1948. Papers of the NAACP, Part

04: Voting Rights Campaign, 1916-1950. History Vault (001517-008-0285).

Franklin H. Williams to A.T. Walden. September 14, 1948. Papers of the NAACP, Part

04: Voting Rights Campaign, 1916-1950. History Vault (001517-008-0285).

Franklin H. Williams to A.T. Walden, October 25, 1948. Papers of the NAACP, Part

04: Voting Rights Campaign, 1916-1950. History Vault (001517-008-0285).

Harris, James. Interview by Hank Klibanoff. Montgomery County, Georgia, November 20, 2015.

Interviewed.

McDonald, Laughlin. A Voting Rights Odyssey; Black Enfranchisement in Georgia.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Mr. Current to Mr. White, “Georgia State Conference,” December 15, 1947, Papers of

the NAACP, Part 26: Selected Branch Files, 1940-1955, Series A: The South. History Vault (001493-010-0804).

Mr. Wilkins to Mr. White, “Memo,” November 3, 1948. Papers of the NAACP, Part

04: Voting Rights Campaign, 1916-1950. History Vault (001517-008-0285).

 “NAACP Plans New Action in Georgia Murder Case,” The Herald, December 2, 1948. Papers

of the NAACP, Part 04: Voting Rights Campaign, 1916-1950. History Vault (001517-008-0285).

 “NAACP: A Century in the Fight for Freedom.” Library of Congress,

http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/naacp/founding-and-early-years.html

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Annual Report for 1947. New

York: NAACP, 1948.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP Annual Report for 1940,

New York: The NAACP, 1940.

“Nation-Wide Membership Campaign; Georgia State Conference.” Papers of the NAACP, Part

26: Selected Branch Files, 1940-1955, Series A: The South, History Vault (001493-011-0001).

“Nation-Wide Membership Campaign; Membership Status of Georgia Branches as of

November 15, 1947.” Papers of the NAACP, Part 04: Voting Rights Campaign, 1916-1950. History Vault (001493-010-0804).

Novotny, Patrick. This Georgia Rising: Education, Civil Rights and the Politics of Change in

Georgia in the 1940’s. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2007.

Owen, Hugh Carl. The Rise of Negro Voting in Georgia: 1944-1950. Thesis, Emory

University, 1951.

Patterson, William. We Charge Genocide; The Crime of Government Against the Negro

People. New York: Civil Rights Congress, 1952.

“Program of the Sixth Annual Session of the State N.A.A.C.P. Conference of Georgia,”

December 11,12,13 1947, Papers of the NAACP, Part 26: Selected Branch Files, 1940-

1955, Series A: The South, History Vault ( 001493-010-0804).

St. James, Warren D. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;

A Case Study in Pressure Groups. New York: Exposition Press, 1958.

The Fortieth Year in the Crusade for Civil Rights; NAACP Annual Report for 1948. New

York: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1948.

Thurgood Marshall to Governor M.E. Thompson, September 13, 1948, Papers of the NAACP

Part 04: Voting Rights Campaign, 1916-1950. History Vault (001517-008-0285).

[1] Thurgood Marshall to Governor M.E. Thompson, “telegram,” September 13, 1948, Papers of the NAACP. History Vault (001517-008-0285)

[2] Ibid.

[3] There is variation in the spelling of his name. FBI agents referred to him as Thomas Wilkes before later correcting themselves.

[4] Warren D. St. James, The National Association or the Advancement of Colored People, (New York, Exposition Press, 1958): 42.

[5] Ibid.,56-78.

[6] NAACP Annual Report for 1940, (New York, The NAACP, 1940): 20.

[7] St. James, 76.

[8] St. James, 76.

[9] “NAACP: A Century in the Fight for Freedom,” The Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/naacp/founding-and-early-years.html.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Patrick Novotny, “This Georgia Rising” (Macon, Mercer University Press, 2007): 152.

[12] Hugh Carl Owen, The Rise of Negro Voting in Georgia: 1944-1950, (Thesis, Emory University, 1951): 12.

[13] Ibid.,14.

[14] William L. Patterson, “We Charge Genocide.” (New York: Civil Rights Congress, 1952): 64.

[15] Owen, 52.

[16] Ibid.,125.

[17] Ibid., 29.

[18] Ibid.,34.

[19] NAACP, Annual Report for 1947. (New York: NAACP, 1948): 6.

[20] “Nation-Wide Membership Campaign; Membership Status of Georgia Branches as of November 15, 1947.” Papers of the NAACP, History Vault (001493-010-0804)

[21] “Nation-Wide Membership Campaign; Georgia State Conference.” Papers of the NAACP, History Vault (001493-011-0001)

[22] Mr. Current to Mr. White, “Georgia State Conference,” December 15, 1947, Papers of the NAACP. History Vault. (001493-010-0804)

[23]  “Program of the Sixth Annual Session of the State N.A.A.C.P. Conference of Georgia,” December 11, 12, 13, 1947, Papers of the NAACP, History Vault (001493-010-0804)

[24] Owen, Appendix A.

[25] James Harris in discussion with Hank Klibanoff, November 2015.

[26] Thurgood Marshall to Governor M.E. Thompson, September 13, 1948, Papers of the NAACP. History Vault (001517-008-0285)

[27] Franklin H. Williams to A.T. Walden. September 14, 1948. Papers of the NAACP. History Vault (001517-008-0285)

[28] Franklin Douglas to NAACP. September 18, 1948. Papers of the NAACP, History Vault (001517-008-0285)

[29]  A.T. Walden to Francis H Williams, “Re: Isaacc Nixon Case, D.V. Carter Case,” October 21, 1948. Papers of the NAACP. History Vault (001517-008-0285)

[30] Mr. Wilkins to Mr. White, “Memo,” November 3, 1948. Papers of the NAACP.  History Vault (001517-008-0285)

[31] Franklin H. Williams to A.T. Walden, October 25, 1948. Papers of the NAACP. History Vault (001517-008-0285)

[32] The Fourteenth year in the Crusade for Civil Rights, (New York: NAACP, 1948): 26.

[33] “NAACP Plans New Action in Georgia Murder Case,” The Herald, December 2, 1948. Papers of the NAACP., History Vault (001517-008-0285)