"To Speak When and Where I Can": African American Women's Political Activism in South Carolina in the 1940s and 1950s

Article excerpt

HISTORIANS HAVE DONE MUCH EXCELLENT WORK IN exploring black political participation in the South (or the lack thereof, as it were), but they have not been as conscious about examining political activism on the part of black women.1 They have been even less mindful about highlighting black women's impact on political changes through African American mixed-sex and female political and social organizations. That said, black women in South Carolina were critical actors in African Americans' epic struggle-from emancipation through the civil rights movement-to obtain access to electoral politics in the state. During Reconstruction, after black men gained the right to vote, black women assumed important roles in African American political participation. After the vast majority of African Americans in South Carolina were disfranchised by the Constitution of 1895, this was no less the case.2 Well into the twentieth century, black women in South Carolina worked as leaders and followers at the grassroots level to enact political change for African Americans. This article examines the collective and individual parts they played in South Carolina in the 1940s and 1950s as they fought for greater access to the political arena for all African Americans through such gender-integrated and female organizations as the South Carolina Progressive Democratic party, the South Carolina Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, and the Columbia Women's Council.

In August 1940, in the upcountry courthouse town of Gaffney, Lottie Polk Gaffney, teacher and principal of Petty Town School, went with four other women and several ministers to register to vote in the Cherokee County general election.3 When their turn to register came, the registrar informed Gaffney and those with her that "darkies ain't never voted in South Carolina and especially Cherokee County. I will not register you."4 Gaffney and her party promptly went to see the county attorney, who told them that they should have no trouble voting. Despite the county attorney's reassurance to the registrar that African Americans were eligible to vote, Gaffney and her party were still not allowed to register. In fact, when they returned on this second occasion, a member of the registration board slammed and locked the door before they could enter. Gaffney then wrote to NAACP officials in New York, who forwarded her letter to U.S. Attorney General Robert H. Jackson, asking that black voting rights be protected during the registration period. On September 2,1940, the group returned to the registration office for a third time, where they were asked why they wanted to vote. Gaffney recalled:

One member said that some God damned son of a bitch Republican put us up to want to vote. If the board would register us it would be dangerous for us-that our houses would be burned; that our heads would be scalped, etc. That if they would register us their heads would be cut off before night. If we registered it would do no good. If we are seeking social equality and a right to vote we had better go North.5

Gaffney and the women who had accompanied her, with the assistance of the NAACP, brought suit against the Cherokee County Registration Board inMarch 1942 in the case of United States v. Ellis et al. Their efforts were to no avail. The Spartanburg County federal jury acquitted the officials of the charge of refusing to register African Americans, citing insufficient evidence.6 It is also likely that Gaffney and her group did not receive justice because the U.S. district attorney who represented them during the trial, Oscar H. Doyle, wanted to run for the U.S. Senate from South Carolina and was disinclined to jeopardize his political career by arguing the case too vigorously.7

This court decision had further repercussions for Gaffhey. For a time, local post office officials refused to deliver her mail.8 Even worse, because she had appeared as a witness in the case, Gaffney lost her position as a teacher and, despite an excellent record, was unable to gain employment in any South Carolina school district. …