Dallas County Voters League
By Holly Jansen
As we prepared resources for teaching about the history of the Selma Movement, we could not find a dedicated history online of the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL), the group that bravely launched the fight for voting and economic rights in Selma in the 1920s.
Therefore we are posting this excerpt from a Florida State University dissertation, “From Selma To Montgomery: Remembering Alabama’s Civil Rights Movement Through Museums,” with the generous permission of the author, Holly Jansen.
Despite the risks of retaliation and violence, C.J. Adams founded Selma’s NAACP chapter in 1918. J.L. Chestnut remembered that “Adams pretty much was the NAACP in Selma.” There were no lawyers in south Alabama, and Adams, a notary public, served as Dallas County’s black legal adviser. In the mid-1920s he founded the Dallas County Voters League (DCVL) to help African Americans register to vote. Membership was low under the oppressive racial conditions.
Nevertheless, Adams attracted police attention. After being imprisoned several times for falsifying documents, he moved to Detroit in 1948. When Adams left, Sam Boynton took over as the DCVL president and NAACP leader for Selma.
Boynton believed that economic advancement was the key in overcoming discrimination. Economic advancement, however, could not happen without voting rights. Boynton and his wife, Amelia, opened an insurance agency, allowing them to be safe, at least, from job retaliation. By the 1950s, the league was holding monthly meetings in the Boyntons’ office. The DCVL had a small, but loyal membership of about a dozen people, including dental hygienist Marie Foster and teachers James Gildersleeve and F. D. Reese.
As the DCVL worked locally, the federal government passed two laws, the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, in hopes of reducing the barriers to black enfranchisement. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 gave the Justice Department more power to combat voter registration discrimination, including federal review of complaints against voting rights. However, few blacks went through the bureaucratic process of filing a formal complaint, and when they did, the county registrars refused to produce records. The 1960 act strengthened the previous one by forcing boards to keep registration and voting records and making them available to the Justice Department upon request. According to David Garrow, both acts “proved disappointing.”
The enforcement of both laws depended on the cooperation of federal judges, many of whom were segregationists. Dallas County’s district federal judge, Daniel H. Thomas, believed racial matters “must be resolved, and should be resolved, by the people not the courts.” He repeatedly denied Justice Department requests for records and delayed trials for months on end, often only proceeding after a federal complaint. Thomas’ actions protected Judge James Hare and Sheriff Jim Clark, his close friends in Dallas County. The local leaders committed extreme abuses of power because Thomas refused to hold them accountable for their actions.
Sam Boynton realized that the DCVL would have to remove or circumvent the local leadership to gain political equality. Boynton hoped to attract the attention of “sympathetic forces” outside the community. They initially sought help from the federal government. In 1957, the Boyntons and DCVL members testified before the newly-formed Civil Rights Commission in Montgomery after the registrars continued misconduct.
Perhaps realizing that change would come slowly through the federal courts, Amelia Boynton contacted a few civil rights organizations in 1962. She began taking on a more visible leadership role in the voters’ league in the late 1950s after Sam suffered from a series of strokes. Prompted by her dying husband’s wish to see that his civil rights work be continued, Amelia hoped to hold a voter registration drive.
In November 1962, the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council sent a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field worker to Selma to determine if a project would be successful there. Bernard Lafayette, like many SNCC workers, brought something new to Selma – fearlessness. In a particularly bold move, he met with Sheriff Jim Clark, Dallas County’s version of Birmingham’s Bull Connor, letting Clark know that he was in town for voter registration. Lafayette was impressed with the strong local foundation through the DCVL. He thought Selma was an ideal place for a registration drive and recommended that funding be provided to the DCVL.
In early February 1963, Lafayette and Colia [Liddell] began the voting registration campaign. The outsiders’ presence was met with mixed reviews from the voters’ league members. Margaret Moore, a teacher, gave the Lafayettes a room in her home, despite the job retaliation risks. Marie Foster continued teaching voter education classes.
The SNCC workers recruited many Selma University and high school students to join the registration efforts. But not everyone was in favor of SNCC’s strategy of direct action campaigns. Many older, black activists and civilians expressed their concerns, and some even quit the DCVL. Whether they approved or not, the campaign resulted in more registration attempts. Before the drive began, applications averaged three per month, but by May 1963 had jumped to thirty-one blacks.
As the Dallas County movement gained momentum, its founding father Sam Boynton died in May 1963. Lafayette and Rev. L.L. Anderson honored Boynton with a memorial service and voting rights rally at Tabernacle Baptist Church.
On May 14, three hundred fifty African Americans attended Selma’s first mass meeting. Sheriff Clark and his posse of recently deputized, poorly trained, men also came to the meeting. After smashing car windshields outside, Clark and his posse stormed the church, daring the activists to challenge them. The night’s speaker, James Forman, SNCC’s executive secretary, stood his ground. Forman inspired many in the audience with his fearlessness, loudly proclaiming,
“Someday they will have to open up that ballot box, and that will be our day of reckoning.”
The monthly mass meetings turned into weekly events, gaining more support at each one. Over the summer, hundreds of people applied for registration and over 800 people attended a meeting in September 1963. Clark’s harassment increased as support for the movement grew. The sheriff and his posse began ticketing cars at meetings and arresting SNCC workers, including Lafayette. But now, unlike ever before, the black activists refused to let white resistance stop them.
In July, SNCC and the DCVL began preparing for demonstrations and sit-ins. The activists opposed to direct-action formed their own committee, the Dallas County Improvement Association (DCIA). Both groups submitted petitions to Mayor Chris Heinz and other groups, including the Selma Retail Merchants Association. The DCIA’s modest requests included paying black workers a living wage and considering them for previously whites-only positions.
SNCC and the DCVL demanded full integration of all public facilities and for the hiring of black policemen and firemen. Both petitions were denied without much consideration from the white leaders. Realizing that compromises with officials would not work, the DCIA united with SNCC and the DCVL. The direct action demonstrations began on September 16, 1963.
Credit: Jansen, Holly, “From Selma to Montgomery: Remembering Alabama’s Civil Rights Movement Through Museums” (2012). Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations. Paper 5370.
Learn more in “The Selma Voting Rights Struggle: 15 Key Points from Bottom-Up History and Why It Matters Today” by Emilye Crosby.