On June 17, 1957, African-American residents of the city of Tuskegee resolved to stop patronizing white-owned businesses in what came to be called the Tuskegee Boycott. The population of highly segregated Tuskegee, Alabama, home of the famous Tuskegee Institute (founded to educate newly freed slaves) and the Tuskegee Airmen (the first squadron of African-American pilots in the military), was about 6700 at the time, approximately 70%, or 4800, were African-American. The white governing minority, afraid that voter registration of the African-American population might catch up and surpass the white voters (in spite of the intentional slowdown of voter registration reviews by the all-white Board of Registrars), decided it was time to redraw the city boundaries. State Sen. Sam Engelhardt, Jr. proposed legislation to reduce the geographic size of Tuskegee, eliminating the current northwest quadrant where Tuskegee Institute, and the mostly African-American community surrounding it, were located. The legislature passed the gerrymandering bill and sent it to Governor James Folsom for approval.
The response of the African-American community was to vote with their dollars, if they were going to be denied the right to vote by ballot. In a rally at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Tuskegee Institute’s Prof. Charles Gomillion proposed,
“We will buy goods and services only from those who will recognize us as first-class citizens. They may hate our guts, but they will respect us. We can hold out longer than they. We can form our own businesses if necessary. We will continue as long as we have to.”
A week into the boycott, white merchants were not yet “openly alarmed” but their businesses were hurting “more than they will admit”. Prof. Gomillion summed up the sentiment of the African-American community in this way:
“They are hurt to think this could happen. They are resentful and disgusted. In the past two years, only four colored persons have been examined by the Board of Registrars which grants voting certificates. For years the board has followed the practice of meeting to register white voters, then disband when colored persons try to appear before it.”
Image Credit: U.S. Supreme Court