The Unintended Double V

| By Stephanie Charles |

On September 8, 1948, Dover Carter and Isaiah Nixon, two black men from the small town of Alston, Georgia, went to the polls to exercise their right to vote. In an effort to increase black voter turnout, these two black men also transported other black residents to and from the polls that same day. Many white residents of Alston, including the sheriff-elect, were vehemently opposed to allowing black citizens to vote.  In Georgia, as well as most of the Southern states, racism and the notion of white supremacy were deeply ingrained in the minds of white citizens.[1] Elsewhere, however, attitudes were changing. During World War II, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws designed to disenfranchise blacks.  White supremacists no longer had legal grounds to prevent black citizens from voting. To maintain their dominance over the black community, white supremacists resorted to intimidation and violence. As a result, racial violence in the United States, particularly in the South, intensified.

Johnnie Johnson and Thomas Jefferson Wilson, two white supremacists, stopped Dover Carter on his way home from driving his black neighbor to the polling center.  Johnson and Wilson pulled Carter from his car and brutally beat him with a tire iron and iron knuckles. The sheriff-elect of Montgomery County, Claude Sharpe, witnessed the attack, Dover Carter later reported to the FBI, but did nothing to stop it.[2]

Johnson and Wilson were never brought to trial although there was substantial evidence to identify and convict them.[3] Later that same day, Jim Johnson, Johnnie Johnson’s brother, fatally shot Isaiah Nixon, a black man, in front of his entire family because he had voted in the primary earlier that day.[4] State attorneys prosecuted Jim Johnson and his brother Johnnie Johnson for the murder of Isaiah Nixon. The entire trial for Jim Johnson lasted only two hours and after a brief deliberation, the jury returned a “not guilty” verdict.  Charges against Johnnie Johnson were dropped by the prosecutor.

Neither Johnnie Johnson, Jim Johnson nor Thomas Jefferson Wilson were ever held accountable for their vicious and criminal acts.[5]

Although the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave all citizens of the United States the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” state legislators, particularly those in the South, adopted laws designed to prevent black citizens from voting.[6]  Many states implemented laws that required citizens to pass a literacy test and/or required citizens to pay a poll tax prior to voting.  In addition, many southern states passed laws that specifically allowed only white citizens to vote in primaries.  These laws were implemented in order to disenfranchise an already oppressed black community.

Black soldiers returning home from World War II felt proud of their accomplishments overseas and it energized their efforts to obtain their civil rights at home. During the war, black soldiers fought alongside white soldiers in their unified effort against the Axis Powers. Samuel Adams, a sociologist, said that he “saw a more overt spirit of assertiveness and pride emerging among blacks in the Mississippi Delta during the war as enhanced mobility and higher wages bolstered self-confidence and ambition.”[7] Black war veterans believed that their military service would bring all blacks newfound respect, expand their civil rights and bring them greater liberty upon the close of the war.

The desegregation of the U.S. military in 1948 further boosted racial pride among black veterans and blacks at home.

This sense of optimism in the black community gave rise to the campaign for the “Double V.”[8] The Double V was a campaign for not only victory over fascist enemies in Europe, but also over racism and discrimination at home. The significant increase in the number of chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the South was evidence of the resurgence of black activism. In Georgia alone, fifty new chapters emerged between 1940 and 1947.[9] The NAACP focused specifically on the fight for voter rights. In many counties, although blacks greatly outnumbered whites, fewer were registered to vote and voter turnout among the black community was low.[10]

The NAACP attempted to combat the disenfranchisement of blacks through two main approaches: litigation and grassroots movements. A lawsuit against the Democratic Party in Texas, Smith v. Allwright, which was heard by the Supreme Court in 1944, successfully challenged the legality of “all white” primaries.[11] Representing the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall argued that the exclusion of blacks from the Democratic primary in Texas was unconstitutional. Since the primary was acting as a subsidiary of the state, the Court ruled that the eligibility requirements for voting in a primary election were still subject to the voting protections in the Constitution. Laughlin McDonald, an expert on voting rights during the post-Civil War era, wrote that the Court’s decision “set in motion two opposing forces in the state, mobilization of the black community and the counter mobilization of the white community.”[12]

The NAACP also organized a systematic grassroots movement across the South by arranging mass demonstrations geared towards increasing black registration and voting.[13] These grassroots efforts proved successful. By 1946, more than 125,000 blacks in Georgia were registered to vote. By the end of that year, black voters made up 20% of the state’s electorate.[14]

The enthusiasm that gave rise to the campaign for the “Double V” was not shared by many whites.[15] For them, the war reinforced a belief in white supremacy. ”[16] Southern white conservative veterans felt as though they were fighting a war on two fronts; one at home against the black movement, and one in Washington against their own federal government, which was supporting black equality. Jason Morgan Ward, an author of many publications on 20th Century civil rights, argues that, “Southern conservatives deemed civil rights agitation and federal encroachment to be as dangerous as an Axis invasion.”[17] Conservative white Southerners witnessed federal case law, which had previously upheld the Jim Crow laws, steadily erode Jim Crow during World War II. The tide was changing: the federal government was becoming more supportive of the civil rights of blacks.

Southern white conservatives felt vulnerable.  Since blacks constituted a majority of the population in many areas of the South, white Southerners realized that if they permitted blacks to freely exercise their right to vote, they would soon become less influential in politics.  Laws enabling white superiority over the black community were in jeopardy, and if the trend continued, white conservatives would no longer be able to direct and determine the outcome of local elections.  Black sympathizers would likely obtain positions of power and thereby threaten the racial status quo that had existed for generations.

On the economic front, white war veterans were returning to the U.S. to find a competitive job market. To make matters worse, they were now competing with black veterans for the same jobs.  White Southerners felt threatened and angry about the additional competition. Inflammatory rhetoric contributed to the hatred and violence toward the black community. Horace Wilkinson, a Southern politician and former Ku Klux Klan leader, alarmed whites by announcing that blacks “stole” the jobs of white steelworkers.[18]

Southern white conservatives were fearful: their world order was changing. Frustration, fear and anger over the change in their social and economic status likely loomed large in the minds of Johnnie Johnson and Thomas Jefferson Wilson when they assaulted Dover Carter. It likely caused Jim Johnson to shoot and kill Isaiah Nixon at point blank range.  Since white Southerners could no longer rely on the foundations of the government to disenfranchise blacks, intimidation and violence became their next option.

Long-time governor of Georgia, Eugene Talmadge, a notorious racist and white supremacist, was voted out of office in 1942 and was replaced by a more moderate candidate, Ellis Arnall.[19] Four years later, Talmadge ran for governor again. This time, Talmadge’s campaign became more extreme. A federal court ruling in early 1946 had outlawed Georgia’s “whites only” Democratic primary. For the first time in decades, blacks could legally vote in the primary. During a stump speech, Talmadge warned, “wise Negroes will stay away from white folks’ ballot boxes.” [20] Talmadge himself was accused of intimidating blacks to leave the polls. Another candidate accused Talmadge of promoting mob violence against blacks. When asked how to prevent blacks from voting, Talmadge responded by “scrawling across a piece of paper the word, ‘pistols.’”[21] Talmadge won his 1946 governorship run by appealing to Southern white supremacists. On election day, only three blacks voted in Talmadge’s home county.[22] Talmadge would die before actually taking office, leading to Georgia’s notorious “Three Governors” controversy.

Despite the rising sentiment for civil rights nationwide, it was not uncommon for politicians in the South to advocate for the use of violence. In 1946, U.S. Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi faced reelection and urged “every red-blooded American who believes in the superiority of the white race to get out and see that no nigger votes… and the best time to do it is the night before.”[23] By the 1948 election, there was an upsurge in Ku Klux Klan activities in Georgia. White southerners believed that by allowing blacks to vote, they were saying goodbye to life as they knew it.  This fear manifested itself in the form of lynchings, cross burnings, and KKK demonstrations in the South. After the end of World War II, white supremacists were more determined than ever to preserve Jim Crow laws and were willing to maim and murder in order to keep blacks from gaining a voice in political affairs.

Racially motivated violence and brutality, like that inflicted on Dover Carter and Isaiah Nixon, was the horrific consequence of white supremacists desperately trying to maintain their dominance over the black population.  With the elimination of the “all white” primary and the abolition of the poll tax to legally keep black citizens from voting, white supremacists resorted to intimidation and violence to keep blacks from having a voice in government.

Edited by David Beasley

Endnotes

[1] James C. Cobb. The South and America since World War II, 5. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2] Thomas A. Erwin, Jr. “Johnnie Johnson; Thomas Wilkes; Claude Sharp; Dover V. Carter – VICTIM,” Sept. 20, 1948, 2, FBI files on Isaiah Nixon. Sharpe is misspelled throughout the files. The correct spelling is Sharpe and that is how he will be referred to in this paper. Thomas Jefferson Wilson is referred to in some FBI documents as Thomas Wilkes. The correct name is Thomas Jefferson Wilson and that is how he will be referred in this paper.

[3] Federal Bureau of Investigation to SAC, Atlanta, “Johnny Johnson, Jim A. Johnson, Isaiah

Nixon, Victim CRDV; Johnny Johnson, Thomas Wilkes, Claude Sharp, Dover V. Carter, Victim CRVD.” Sept. 14, 1948, 1, FBI files on Isaiah Nixon.

[4] Rudolph A, Alt. “Johnnie Johnson; Jim A. Johnson; Isaiah Nixon – VICTIM.” April 4, 1949, 1, FBI files on Isaiah Nixon.

[5] Alexander M. Campbell, Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division to The Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Johnnie Johnson, Jim A. Johnson; Isaiah Nixon – VICTIM; Civil Rights and Domestic Violence.” March 8, 1949, 1, FBI files on Isaiah Nixon.

[6] U.S. Constitution, amend. XV. Sec. 1.

[7]James C. Cobb. The South and America since World War II, 2. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[8] James C. Cobb. The South and America since World War II, 4. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[9]James C. Cobb. The South and America since World War II, 3. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[10] Hugh Carl Owen. The Rise of Negro Voters in Georgia: 1944-1950 (Atlanta: Emory University, 1951), Appendix A.

[11] Laughlin McDonald. A Voting Rights Odyssey: Black Enfranchisement in Georgia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 48.

[12]  Laughlin McDonald. A Voting Rights Odyssey: Black Enfranchisement in Georgia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 49.

[13] Glenn T. Eskew. But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 70.

[14] James C. Cobb. The South and America since World War II, 6. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[15]James C. Cobb. The South and America since World War II, 15. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[16] Jason Morgan Ward. “A War for States’ Rights.” In Fog of War: The Second World War and the Civil Rights Movement, 127-44. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

[17] Jason Morgan Ward. “A War for States’ Rights.” In Fog of War: The Second World War and the Civil Rights Movement, 127. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

[18] Glenn Feldman. Politics, Society, and the Klan in Alabama: 1915-1949 (Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1999), 288.

[19] Harold Paulk Henderson. “Eugene Talmadge.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. August 25, 2004. Accessed October 20, 2015.

[20] James C. Cobb. The South and America since World War II, 7. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[21] Robert Mickey. Paths out of Dixie: The Democratization of Authoritarian Enclaves in America’s Deep South, 9. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.

[22] James C. Cobb. The South and America since World War II, 7. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[23] James C. Cobb. The South and America since World War II, 5. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Bibliography

Alt, Rudolph A., “Johnnie Johnson; Jim A. Johnson; Isaiah Nixon – VICTIM.” April 4, 1949, 1, FBI files on Isaiah Nixon.

Campbell, Alexander M., Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division to The Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Johnnie Johnson, Jim A. Johnson; Isaiah Nixon – VICTIM;

Civil Rights and Domestic Violence.” March 8, 1949, 1, FBI files on Isaiah Nixon.

Cobb, James C. The South and America since World War II. New York: Oxford University

Press, 2011.

Erwin Jr, Thomas A. “Johnnie Johnson; Thomas Wilkes; Claude Sharp; Dover V. Carter –

VICTIM,” Sept. 20, 1948, 2, FBI files on Isaiah Nixon.

Eskew, Glenn T. But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights

Struggle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 70.

Federal Bureau of Investigation to SAC, Atlanta, “Johnny Johnson, Jim A. Johnson, Isaiah

Nixon, Victim CRDV; Johnny Johnson, Thomas Wilkes, Claude Sharp, Dover V. Carter, Victim CRVD.” Sept. 14, 1948, 2, FBI files on Isaiah Nixon.

Feldman, Glenn. Politics, Society, and the Klan in Alabama: 1915-1949 (Tuscaloosa: Univ. of

Alabama Press, 1999), 288.

Henderson, Harold Paulk. “Eugene Talmadge.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. August 25, 2004.

Accessed October 20, 2015.

Hugh Carl Owen, The Rise of Negro Voters in Georgia: 1944-1950, (Atlanta: Emory University, 1951), Appendix A.

McDonald, Laughlin. A Voting Rights Odyssey: Black Enfranchisement in Georgia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Mickey, Robert. Paths out of Dixie: The Democratization of Authoritarian Enclaves in

America’s Deep South. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Nixon, Dorothy. Interviewed by Hank Klibanoff, October 8, 2015.

U.S. Constitution, amend. XV. Sec. 1.

Ward, Jason Morgan. “A War for States’ Rights.” In Fog of War: The Second World War and      the Civil Rights Movement, 127-44. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.