Votes for All Alabamians:
Amelia Boynton Robinson and the Commission on Civil Rights,
December 9, 1958

By Alex Colvin, Ph.D., ADAH

"They wanted to register and vote! They wanted their fair share of America because they had worked for it and so had their forefathers."

— Amelia Boynton Robinson, 1991 

In a crowded courtroom in Montgomery’s federal building, the United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) began its first public hearing at 9:00 a.m. on December 8, 1958. One year earlier, Congress created the commission because it had become “disturbed by allegations that some American citizens were being denied the right to vote, or otherwise deprived of the equal protection of laws because of their race, color, creed, or national origin.” Congress charged the USCCR to investigate these allegations and report its findings. After receiving several sworn complaints of voter suppression in Alabama, the commission set up a two-day hearing to gather information on the validity of these claims. On the second day, December 9, the first witness was Amelia Boynton Robinson.*

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Amelia Boynton testifying about voter registration discrimination in Dallas County at a hearing before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Montgomery, 1959. The Birmingham News, part of the Alabama Media Group Collection, Alabama Department of Archives and History.

* At the time of her testimony, she was married to Samuel William Boynton, who died in 1963. She later married James Robinson, who died in 1988. Today she is best known by the name Amelia Boynton Robinson.

A steadfast voting-rights activist in the Alabama Black Belt for decades, Robinson’s appearance as a witness was no coincidence. Born on August 18, 1911, in Savannah, Georgia, Robinson’s parents taught her the importance of voting. In 1921, Robinson’s mother drove a horse and buggy to transport African American men and women to the local registrar’s office. After graduating from Tuskegee Institute, Robinson moved to Selma to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In this position she educated farm families in Dallas County about food production, healthcare, and other important topics. As a registered voter, she encouraged Black citizens to register. In 1933, she helped form the Dallas County Voters League, which held voter registration drives and prepared African Americans for the arduous registration process, involving long wait times, a literacy test, and other legal and extralegal means of dissuading African Americans from attempting to register. Through her travels around Dallas County and the surrounding counties of Wilcox, Perry, and Lowndes, Robinson saw firsthand the kind of widespread discrimination Black Alabamians faced when trying to register. Alabama’s 1901 Constitution implemented provisions that effectively prevented most of the state’s African Americans and poor whites from voting. Through the Dallas County Voters League, Robinson taught applicants how to fill out the registration application and present themselves at the registrar’s office. She also acted as a witness for applicants to bolster their applications as required by law. 

 

Appearing before the USCCR on that December day in a courtroom filled with reporters, witnesses, supporters, and antagonists, Robinson detailed widespread voter suppression in Alabama. She reviewed the racial demographics of registered voters in various Black Belt counties. Robinson reported that in her home county of Dallas, only 125 of the eighteen thousand Black citizens of voting age were registered to vote. In adjacent Lowndes County, none of the 8,054 eligible Black citizens were registered, whereas 1,500 of the 2,154 eligible white citizens were registered. Similarly, Wilcox County had no African American voters. 

When asked about the conditions faced by Black citizens in registrar’s offices that perpetuated these numbers, Robinson explained matter-of-factly: “They fear going there personally…pressure has been brought on them from other angles, and because of that reason they do not want to go up there and become unpopular or criticized.” As an example, she noted that after two Black store owners in Lowndes County showed interest in registering, distributors stopped delivering goods to their stores. This kind of economic pressure was prevalent in every Black Belt county, Robinson asserted, but was particularly pervasive in Lowndes County, where economic threats prevented Black citizens from even attempting to register. Robinson reminded the USCCR that there had previously been economic repercussions for those suspected of joining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). African American citizens feared that registering to vote would bring reprisal upon themselves, their families, and their livelihoods.

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Woman waiting in like, likely to register to vote, ca. 1966. Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Robinson reported on other schemes used to discourage potential voters. In Wilcox County, a Black merchant was told to go to the town hall to register, but when he arrived officials told him to go to a second location. When he got to the second location, officials told him to go to a third. Discouraged, he went home unregistered. Another Wilcox County resident, this one a Black minister, contacted a member of the county Board of Registrars. The board member told him, “Well, now, you’re all right. I could register you, but to register you means I have to register other Negroes, and for that reason it’s better not to register you.” Because state law gave county registrars near-total independence and discretion in their decisions, the minister had no recourse to combat this prejudicial decision.

The USCCR heard from forty-eight witnesses in Montgomery. The next year, the commission submitted a report to Congress with their findings. Many Alabamians told the same story: Black citizens arrived at the courthouse on registration day and waited for a long period, up to nine hours, and often had to return several times before they even made it into the registration room. The registration process was complicated, taking up to three hours for individuals to complete. Thirty-three of the witnesses testified they had ultimately been unable to register. Of those, ten were college graduates, six held doctorate degrees, and all but seven had completed high school. All of the applicants were literate. While some had been able to vote in other states before they moved to Alabama, others had lived in the Yellowhammer State all their lives and had always been denied the franchise. Among these witnesses were decorated war veterans who had fought for the United States. 

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Marchers on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, approaching the Capitol at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march. Alabama Department of Archives and History.

When asked why they had wanted to register to vote, the Alabama witnesses explained that they felt a sense of duty and responsibility. Bettye F. Henderson of Tuskegee said that she desired to vote “because it is a right and privilege guaranteed to us under the Constitution” and that she wanted “to be an example in performing that duty” to her four children. As to why these citizens were denied the vote, the commission relied on the words of an unidentified farmer from Macon County. “Well I have never been arrested and always has been a law-abiding citizen; to the best of my opinion has no mental deficiency,” the witness explained, “and my mind couldn’t fall on nothing but only, since I come up to these other requirements, that I was just a negro.”

The USCCR also investigated the lengthy questionnaire central to registration in Alabama and found no official set of correct answers to the long examination. The commission reported that two white registrants had answered in the affirmative to the question, “Will you give aid to enemies of the U.S. government or the government of the State of Alabama?” They both became registered voters. If Black citizens complained about the questionnaire or their treatment at the registration office, the board would often simply cease to operate. In Bullock County, the Board of Registrars did not meet for a year and a half. When it reconvened, the board members refused to register the African American citizens who had brought a successful action in federal court against them. The USCCR concluded that there was distinct discrimination in Alabama against African Americans seeking to register. The report declared, rather prophetically, that “the Alabama story is not ended.” 

"Well I have never been arrested and always has been a law-abiding citizen; to the best of my opinion has no mental deficiency, and my mind couldn't fall on nothing but only, since I come up to these other requirements, that I was just a negro."

Indeed, the fight for equal voting rights in Alabama would continue into the 1960s and beyond. Amelia Boynton Robinson was central to the effort in Selma. In 1964, she became the first African American woman to run for the U.S. Congress in Alabama. While she did not win, she did receive 10 percent of the vote, illustrating her influence in the community. The next year, she helped organize and lead the first attempt at a voting-rights march from Selma to the State Capitol in Montgomery. Robinson was among the group of activists assaulted by state troopers on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Law enforcement officers used billy clubs and tear gas on the marchers. Robinson was one of seventeen who had to be hospitalized after the assault. Images of a gassed, beaten, and bloodied Robinson appeared in national media and garnered attention and support for the voting-rights movement. After another unsuccessful attempt to cross the bridge, voting-rights activists finally made it from Selma to Montgomery on March 25, 1965, with the protection of federalized National Guard troops.

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Demonstrators marching toward the Jefferson County Courthouse in downtown Birmingham for a voter registration rally. Alabama Department of Archives and History.

These marches helped gain support for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting and made illegal many of the forms of voter suppression Robinson had described to the USCCR years earlier. Robinson’s leadership was recognized with an invitation to the August 6, 1965, ceremony where President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark legislation into law. Active in the United States and globally, Robinson continued her work in civil and human rights until her death on August 26, 2015. She was the recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Medal in 1990.

In her autobiography, Bridge Across Jordan, Robinson reflected on the fight for the vote: “Rights that were promised us in the U.S. Constitution we had not received, and such rights meant very little unless we were able to claim them… They wanted to register and vote! They wanted a fair share of America because they had worked for it and so had their forefathers.” In generations before and since Amelia Boynton Robinson and her courageous campaign for equality, thousands of Black Alabamians have labored long to bring greater justice to Alabama voters.

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Amelia Boynton Robinson lying on the ground after she and other civil rights marchers were beaten and gassed by state troopers on Bloody Sunday in Selma, March 7, 1965. Birmingham News, part of the Alabama Media Group Collection at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Alex Colvin, Ph.D., is public programs curator as the Alabama Department of Archives and History and a member of the Alabama Women’s Suffrage Centennial Committee.