"I Will Not Move":
Indiana Little and an Expansion of Woman Suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama History
By Briana Adline Royster, Ph.D. Candidate, New York University
"We were the backbone-sometimes side-by-side with those men. Because I know there were women in Birmingham that served as security guards alongside those men, there were women on the board, there were women who were working with the treasury, finance, membership, so we were very much involved. It’s funny though, we don’t get written about. We did not get written about."
— Lola Hendricks, civil rights activist during the Birmingham Campaign
Indiana Little, Pittsburgh Courier, January 30, 1926.
On the morning of January 18,1926, six years after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment and nearly three decades prior to passage of the Voting Rights Act, a group of African American men and women, hoping to register to vote, made their way to the county registrar’s office in Birmingham, Alabama. Indiana Little, a prominent African American woman, led the way. Unsurprisingly, officials did not allow the Birmingham residents to register to vote, and according to one report, officials “assaulted” Little. While no one recorded what happened to the other men and women who participated, the police arrested Little, charged her with vagrancy, and held her on a $300 bond. Twenty-eight-year old Indiana Little’s act of defiance not only made headlines across Alabama, but it also attracted national news coverage in African-American-owned newspapers and sparked a subsequent demonstration in Birmingham.
Born to sharecroppers in Georgia in 1897, Indiana Little was married with two daughters and was working as a maid. She had only lived in Birmingham for three short years by the time she marched to the registrar’s office in 1926. In that time, she had earned respect as a “prominent” and “well known” figure within the African American community, as demonstrated by both men and women following her into action. While there is no clear record of how Little organized the march, we do
have her bold and defiant statement. These words mark her as a female activist for voting rights after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and long before what many scholars now refer to as the “classic phase” of the Civil Rights Movement, which began in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Activists for woman suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement often relied on language that spoke to their rights as citizens of the United States. Indiana Little was no different. While standing in the registrar’s office, Little stated, “I am a free-born citizen of America and by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution I shall not be denied the right to vote because of race, color, or sex, and I will not move until I have been registered.” For Little and the witnesses, invoking the Constitution had multiple benefits, and she did not casually make this statement. While treated as a non-citizen unworthy of the rights afforded to citizens, Little first established herself as a “free-born citizen,” which placed her on equal ground with the white registrars blocking her access to voting rights. She continued by stating her rights as a citizen afforded to her specifically through the Fourteenth Amendment. This marked legality of her attempt to register as she understood it, but also the illegality of the registration officer denying her the right to do so.
"I am a free-born citizen of America and by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution I shall not be denied the right to vote because of race, color, or sex, and I will not move until I have been registered."
— Indiana Little, 1926
Finally, she stated, “I will not move,” a verbal and physically forceful dissent that challenged the authority of white registration officials. At this point, Little had challenged that authority on legal grounds and with her physical body. Not only did Little place the validity of the U.S. Constitution on the line, but she also left her body on the line and in harm’s way. Between 1877 and 1940, there were thirty lynchings in Birmingham, and over 300 in the state of Alabama. Archival records hold numerous accounts of assaults against African American women. So, one might consider her body to be in harm’s way every day simply because she was an African American woman in 1920s Birmingham. Yet Little verbalized her willingness to use her body as a barrier to registration officials and as a tool of enfranchisement and power for African American voters. She stated this in front of her fellow protesters and registration officials. The public nature of her comments mattered, and one can speculate that such a public and educated yet outright defiance of white supremacy led to her arrest and further singled her out as the leader of the march.
We must not forget the total disregard for African American political participation from white people in positions in power in 1920s Alabama. White lawmakers created Alabama’s state constitution of 1901 with the express purpose of establishing “white supremacy in this State.” They enacted literacy tests, poll taxes, and a grandfather clause which exempted descendants of white veterans from literacy tests. These sections in Alabama’s constitution made African American disfranchisement legal. From that point, African Americans had a nearly impossible task of achieving voting rights, and white men in positions of power in Birmingham knew it. Black women in Alabama also lacked the support of white women during the struggle for voting rights. The women who formed the Alabama Equal Suffrage Association in Birmingham in 1912 made the exclusion of African American women from the voting process a key part of their argument for white women’s suffrage. Lacking the support of powerful white men, as well as white women who had recently gained the right to vote, and Alabama law, it probably came as no surprise to Little that she and her followers did not become registered voters on that day in 1926. Under the protection of state law, employees at the registrar’s office saw no reason to acquiesce to Little’s demands. According to witnesses, registration officer L. K. Brown stated that voting remained “a white man’s business,” and he used pejorative language to clarify that his position on the matter had nothing to do with legality, only race. Brown did not want African Americans to achieve the vote and believed furthermore that they had no business setting their sights on political participation. It took a certain kind of boldness for Indiana Little to knowingly confront people with this kind of attitude and authority. While Brown’s statement demonstrated that he had no qualms about blocking African Americans from voting, he also stated that, “too many…are trying to vote around here,” suggesting that Little and her group were not the first to approach the office about voting. Therefore, it is quite possible that Indiana Little took her inspiration from other activists who came before her.
It took a certain kind of boldness for Indiana Little to knowingly confront people with this kind of attitude and authority.
Around this time, federal officials arrived in the area to investigate Birmingham’s registration practices. Brown’s racist rhetoric eased a little as a result, and he later stated that, “All persons are accorded the same treatment in applying for registration certificates. A number of Negro voters registered. Applicants are required to pass a certain intelligence test before they are qualified, and it was this barrier that caused the disagreement with the group of Negroes and the clerks Monday.” Brown changed the way he referred to African American voters, claiming that Birmingham officials allowed African Americans to register. He made it seem that Little’s argument only stemmed from her having to take an intelligence test, although Brown failed to mention that it was primarily administered only to African Americans.
Again, pointing to the shrewdness of Indiana Little’s planned attack on the Jim Crow South, we must also consider that Little or someone in her circle of confidants knew of the arrival of the federal officers. If so, what would it mean that she chose to speak of her citizenship and its ties to the Constitution, while knowing federal government officials were in Birmingham specifically to record instances of disenfranchisement? Like many of the men who were considered leaders of social movements, Indiana Little planned her attack, knew her opponent, used methodical rhetoric, and wielded her tools in the most advantageous way to gain momentum for her cause.
Little’s march also made the rounds in the press. The Birmingham News covered the protest, but Little and her followers quickly, and not surprisingly, became the villains of the story. The paper described the activists as troublemakers creating “a ruckus,” while referencing Brown and his contemporaries as “valiant upholders of peace and Alabama state law.” Meanwhile, other white-run newspapers simply painted Little as someone who did not know her place, and whose march resulted in “little to be seen except an effort by Indiana…to tell Alabama what to do.” The coverage of the incident by local, white-run newspapers painted those seeking the voting rights given to them by the U.S. Constitution as bad citizens who were not worthy of those rights to begin with, which makes Little’s defiant declaration of herself as a U.S. citizen being deprived of her rights all the more necessary. Her wording and positioning of herself was deliberate. Indiana Little would not move, and for her, the continued disenfranchisement of African American men and women could not stand.
Little’s attempt to register and her subsequent arrest sparked other marches and pointed to a “continuing registration fight” in Birmingham. Historian Robin D. G. Kelley found in his research a lasting testament to Indiana Little’s legacy. In his now classic work, Hammer and Hoe, Kelley wrote that a 1940 march may have “reminded a few onlookers of that fateful day in 1926 when Indiana Little led nearly one thousand black women to the Jefferson County courthouse steps to demand the right to vote.”
Women registering to vote with federal examiners in Troy, 1966. Alabama Department of Archives and History.
While her obituary contains no mention of her militant actions, those actions did matter; and her ideas and forcefulness were enough to encourage others to follow her into what was a dangerous situation at the registrar's office.
Indiana Little remained an active voice in her community as the president of the Missionary Society and as a Sunday school teacher and Training Union teacher at the Twenty-Third Street Baptist Church until her death in 1970. While her obituary contains no mention of her militant actions, those actions did matter; and her ideas and forcefulness were enough to encourage others to follow her into what was a dangerous situation at the registrar’s office. In 1957, thirty-one years after her protest, Indiana Little was finally able to achieve her dream of registering to vote. Between 1926 and 1957, Black workers in Birmingham joined industrial unions and successfully fought to lower poll taxes. In 1957, after Gov. James Folsom appointed several voting registrars who were “sympathetic to Negro voting,” the Democratic Party in Alabama began allowing African Americans on primary ballots. And within a few years an expanded Civil Rights Movement had exploded in Alabama, which included robust voter registration trainings to help African Americans pass citizenship tests and other registration requirements. These developments provided an opening for Indiana Little to become, at last, a registered voter.
Voter registration drive, Birmingham, 1966. Alabama Department of Archives and History.
Indiana Little represents neither the beginning nor the end of African American women’s participation in the struggle for voting rights, but she does represent fierce activism during years not always attributed to the history of woman suffrage or the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama. What are the implications of centering women like Indiana Little in the history of the Long Freedom Struggle and the woman suffrage movement? Through an examination of activism and leadership, we see that in 1926 Little made a concerted effort to organize and fight for the equal rights of African Americans on claims of citizenship that marked her as a local leader in both Alabama suffrage and civil rights history. Black women educators, such as Carrie Tuggle, joined Indiana Little as examples of African American women activists in positions of leadership in Birmingham between the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 and the classic phase of the Civil Rights Movement beginning in the 1950s.
Centering the actions and influence of Indiana Little demonstrates that African American women sometimes held the frontline of activism, this phase of the Civil Rights Movement did not spontaneously occur in the 1950s, and the fight for women’s suffrage did not end in 1920. As many scholars have recently shown, a more comprehensive approach to studying the suffrage movement calls for a decentering of wealth and whiteness. Only through this approach do we understand how the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment failed women like Indiana Little. Also, by expanding to look at the “Long Civil
Birmingham election worker showing a sample ballot to a voter. Alabama Department of Archives and History.
Rights Movement” in Alabama history, we see the efforts of African American women and can frame their work in a way that exposes their contributions as leaders, organizers, and intellectuals. These more inclusive visions and telling of history add to the work of historians already providing a corrective to Lola Hendricks’s earlier observation: “We did not get written about.”
Briana Adline Royster is an Alabama native and doctoral candidate at New York University.