A Jury Trial Sparks a Voter Registration Drive in the African American Community
John McFerren encouraging African American residents of Fayette County
And so the Movement Starts ...
The Fayette County, Tennessee Civil Rights Movement began in 1959 when John McFerren and Harpman Jameson attended the trial of Burton Dodson, a black man who was accused of killing a white deputy sheriff. During the jury selection for Dodson’s trial, it became apparent to James F. Estes, a black man and Dodson’s attorney, as well as to the courtroom audience, that no African-Americans were serving on Dodson’s jury. He soon discovered the reason: Only a few blacks throughout the entire county were registered to vote. Appalled, Estes urged McFerren and Jameson to encourage members of the black community to register.
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John McFerren, Harpman Jameson and other black men gathered at the small wooden store owned by Robert McFerren, John’s brother, to discuss why blacks had not registered and concluded that the fear of losing their jobs kept blacks from registering to vote. Moreover, members of this meeting decided that since they were either independently farming or unemployed, they would be insulated from white reprisals if they registered and voted. Although history proved them wrong on that point, their initial analysis led them to seek institutional, historical and legal changes in their community that, in the process, changed them, their community, and their nation.
By August 1, 1959, John McFerren and Harpman Jameson had coaxed a small group of blacks to register to vote. However, when they went to vote in the primary that fall, they were told they could not vote since the primary was an “all white election and no colored could vote.” With the assistance of Estes as their legal counsel, McFerren, Rufus Abernathy, Ed Brooks, Roy Brown, Harpman Jameson, Isaiah Harris, John Lewis, Houston Malone, Levearn Towles and William Towles, Sr., incorporated and organized the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League to, among other things, contest the legality of the all-white primary. Shortly thereafter, Estes filed a lawsuit in federal district court alleging that the Fayette County Election Commission had illegally prohibited blacks from voting in the 1959 primary election. After this suit was filed, pandemonium broke out between the black and white communities.
Several leaders in the African American community immediately began an initiative to increase their numbers on the voter registration rolls. However, this was not to be an easy process.
|After a long wait in line, an African American resident of Fayette County registers to vote.|
Photo: The Memphis Commercial Appeal, June 1960, Special Collections, University of Memphis
—Adapted from "The Fayette County, Tennessee Civil Rights Movement" by D. McFerren. Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, 2006.