By: John Zippert, Co-Publisher
On Friday, July 29, 2022, there was a banquet to celebrate the Special Election 53 years ago in 1969, in which Greene County first time voters elected Black candidates to control the County Commission and School Board. The program was held at the Eutaw Activity Center and attended by more than one hundred people, including special guests.
The July 29, 1969 Special Election was ordered by the U. S. Supreme Court after local white election officials left the slate of Black candidates, with the National Democratic Party of Alabama (NDPA), off the November 1968 ballot. Many of the Greene County voters had just been able to register to vote under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, passed after the struggle in Selma, Alabama.
The July 29, 1969 election resulted in the election of four County Commissioners: Harry Means, Franchie Burton, Vassie Knott and Levi Morrow Sr.; and School Board members: Robert Hines, and James Posey, joined Peter J. Kirksey, who had been elected to the Board in 1968. In 1970 Deacon John Head and Earsrie Chambers were also elected to the school board.
Greene County was the first county in the South to elect a majority Black local government since Reconstruction. In the next election in 1970, Greene County voters elected William McKinley Branch, as the first Black Probate Judge in America and Thomas Gilmore as the second Black Sheriff in Alabama. Greene County also elected Wadine Williams as first Black Circuit Clerk, Robert Cook as first Black Tax Collector and Rev. Harold (Abner) Milton as first Black Coroner.
The program was sponsored by the Alabama Civil Rights Freedom Movement, headed by veteran civil rights leader, Spiver W. Gordon. The organization has two museums in Eutaw and Mantua of artifacts and photograph of the civil rights and voting rights struggle in Greene County.
Some of the materials from the museums was displayed at the banquet.
Gordon led a memorial tribute to 14 of the civil rights movement in Greene County before a delicious dinner was served
Dr. Richard Arrington guest speaker
Dr. Richard Arrington, first Black Mayor of Birmingham and Dean of Miles College, was the guest speaker. He was introduced by Attorney Hank Sanders of Selma, who praised Arrington as a man of understanding, courage, and vision, who served as Mayor of Birmingham for twenty years and was the first President of the Alabama New South Coalition, a progressive political organization.
Arrington began his talk by recalling his birth in 1934 in the Boyd community of Sumter County, near Livingston, Alabama. He recalled his great-grandfather, Oliver Bell, who was born in slavery and freed in 1865 at the age of six. Arrington’s family moved to Birmingham, when he was five but often returned to Sumter County for the summer. “I am a descendent of slaves in the Alabama Black Belt and I am proud of my heritage,” he stated.
Arrington said America went through 244 years of slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow segregation before emerging as a democracy involving everyone in the 1960’s. “This is a marathon race for justice, from generation to generation. Each generation passes the baton to the next. We must be careful not to drop the baton on our way to the promised land.”
He noted some of the violent history of voting rights in Greene County in 1868 and 1870 during Reconstruction. “The Courthouse was burned down and Black political leaders were killed by the Klan at that time.”
“I was at Miles College in July 1969, when I learned about the election of Black officials in Greene County. This was a watershed moment that changed the course of history. It was an example of Black political empowerment that Alabama, the South, and the Nation had never seen before. It created waves of hope among Black people all across America. If Black people can win elections in rural Greene County, they can win anywhere,” said Arrington.
Arrington gave a history of his election first to the City Council and then to be the first Black Mayor of Birmingham in 1979. He said, “Birmingham was the Johannesburg of the South, but despite this the Black people put me on their back and carried me to victory, just the way you had done in Greene County in 1969. President Jimmy Carter called to
congratulate me 15 minutes after I was declared the winner. The world was watching voting in Alabama.”
Arrington told many anecdotes of his time as Mayor including a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, where a dis-believing crowd gathered to welcome him, as the first Black Mayor of the largest city in racist Alabama.
Arrington concluded with the statement, “The right to vote is very powerful. Slavery died in 1865 and we have tried to bury slavery and its accompanying white supremacy, ever since. This is still our task to bury the remnants of slavery. We must vote in every election and use our votes to do the job.”
Spiver Gordon recognized special guests with certificates and awards, at the end of a significant program marking the 53rd Greene County Freedom Day.