Greene County Civil Rights Movement leads to countywide election of Black officials

The early Civil Rights Movement in Greene County, spawned by the youth who boycotted the local schools in 1965, including Carver High School, Greene County Training School and Eatman Jr. High School, gave rise to the growing movement for Black voter registration and interest in seeking political office. Reportedly, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Greene County in 1965 and spoke at the First Baptist Church in Eutaw, urging the Black community to continue to organize and “vote themselves into office.”
Although, the demonstrations, marches, and boycott of local merchants resulted in great physical harm, displacement from homes and farms, continued threats of violence to the Black community, the Greene County Movement had grounded itself and attracted others outside the county to give assistance including legal aid and training in community non-violent protest.
At this time Rev. Peter J. Kirksey of the Dollarhide community was serving as the first Black elected official in Greene County, as a member of the Greene County Board of Education. In 1968, six Blacks qualified for the Primary Election as candidates of the newly organized National Democratic Party of Alabama (NDPA), under the leadership of Dr. John Cashin, from Huntsville, AL. However, the names of the four Black candidates for Greene County Commission and the two Black candidates for Greene County Board of Education were not placed on the official Greene County Ballot for the 1968 election. The Black NDPA candidates for county commission were Vassie Knott, Harry C. Means, Levi Morrow, Sr., and Franchie Burton. The two schools board candidates were Robert Hines and James A. Posey. All six filed suit in federal court for a new election, with the U.S. Justice Department intervening as a “friend of the court.” The case was before the Supreme Court and the Justice Department asked for an injunction to “…set aside the election of six white candidates elected to the disputed county offices on the regular Democratic Party ticket.” The plaintiffs won their suit and the court ordered a new election which was held July 29, 1969.
The Special Election of 1969 gave Blacks majority control of the Greene County Commission and the Greene County Board of Education. The newly elected officials assumed their duties on August 1, 1969.
The school board elected Mr. Peter J. Kirksey as Board President and the board proceeded to initiated administrative changes in the school system. Orzell Billingsley of Birmingham, who had been active in the Greene County Civil Rights Movement was hired as school board attorney. The first Black superintendent of schools, Robert Brown, was hired in 1970.
In 1970, the NDPA sponsored another slate of candidates for the Primary Election: William M. Branch for Probate Judge; Thomas Gilmore for Sheriff; W.D. Lewis for State Representative; Earsrie Chambers and John Head for School Board; Wadine Williams for Circuit Clerk; Abner Milton for Coroner and Jack Drake for Circuit Judge, 17th Judicial District. Drake was subsequently disqualified since he did not meet the residential requirements in Greene County.
The results of the Nov. 3, 1970 General Election as reported in the Greene County Democrat newspaper were as follows: Greene Countians cast 4,700 ballots. Branch defeated Herndon for probate judge by 92 votes; Gilmore defeated Lee for sheriff by 87 votes; Williams defeated Yarbrough for circuit clerk by 178 votes; Milton defeated Brown for coroner by 117 votes; Chambers defeated Eatman for school board by 139 votes; Head defeated Wright for school board by 134 votes.
Since 1970, with a population of 80% African American, Greene County has maintained majority positions on the county commission, school board and has continued to elect Blacks to other county offices including sheriff, probate judge, circuit clerk, coroner and circuit judge.

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