In 1959 African Americans in Fayette and Haywood Counties fought for the right to vote. The concern for voting emerged as a by-product of the absence of black jurors for the trial of Burton Dodson, an African American farmer in his seventies who was tried for the 1941 murder of a white man. By denying African Americans their rights to participate in the electoral process, whites eliminated them from the pool of potential jurors. To combat this injustice, African Americans in the two counties organized the Original Fayette County Civic and Welfare League and the Haywood County Civic and Welfare League. Both leagues launched voter registration drives, and a number of blacks registered to vote during June and July. When the Democrats held their August primary, however, registered African American voters were not allowed to cast their ballots. League members initiated the first legal action against a party primary under the Civil Rights Act of 1957 when they filed suit against the local Democratic Party.
Whites in Fayette and Haywood Counties used their economic advantage to penalize African Americans, many of whom lost employment, credit, and insurance policies. Whites circulated a list of those African Americans who had attempted to vote; the majority of white merchants refused to sell them goods and services, and some white physicians withheld medical care. In the winter of 1960 white property owners evicted hundreds of black tenant farmers from their lands.
African American leaders did not surrender to the pressure tactics. With the support of black property owners, they formed makeshift communities known as “Tent Cities.” They erected drab-green surplus army tents, and homeless families prepared to face the cold winter winds. With no means of support, day-to-day existence provided a continuous strain for “Tent City” residents, even though supporters from across the country helped with shipments of food and clothing. Hate groups such as the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan terrorized the residents by firing shots into the tents.
An exposé by Ted Poston in the New York Post, numerous articles in the New York Times, and Barry Gray’s WMAC radio program brought the leagues’ activities to the attention of the nation. The U.S. Justice Department filed several lawsuits against landowners, merchants, and one financial institution for violating African American civil rights. On July 26, 1962, “landowners were enjoined from engaging in any acts . . . for the purpose of interfering with the right to vote and to vote for candidates in public office.” (1)
Richard Couto, Lifting the Veil: A Political Struggle for Emancipation (1993); Linda T. Wynn, “Tent Cities of Fayette and Haywood Counties, 1960-1962,” in Profiles of African Americans in Tennessee History, ed. Bobby L. Lovett and Linda T. Wynn (1996)