1960 November 14

Tuskegee, Alabama,Voting District Violates the 15th Amendment


The voting rights case, Gomillion v. Lightfoot, decided on this day, involved the shape of the voting district for the city of Tuskegee, Alabama. The state legislature redrew the district, replacing a square shape with a 28-sided one. The effect was the exclusion of most of the potential African-American voters from the city. The Supreme Court ruled that the new district violated the Fifteenth Amendment, which forbids denying the right to vote on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Interestingly, Justice Charles Whittaker, generally regarded as one of the weakest justices in the history of the Court, wrote a concurring opinion arguing that the case should have been decided in terms of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment rather than the Fifteenth Amendment.

The Court: “. . . the Alabama Legislature has not merely redrawn the Tuskegee city limits with incidental inconvenience to the petitioners; it is more accurate to say that it has deprived the petitioners of the municipal franchise and consequent rights and to that end it has incidentally changed the city’s boundaries. While in form this is merely an act redefining metes and bounds, if the allegations are established, the inescapable human effect of this essay in geometry and geography is to despoil colored citizens, and only colored citizens, of their theretofore enjoyed voting rights.”

Learn more about the civil rights struggle in Tuskegee: http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/black-citizens-boycott-white-merchants-us-voting-rights-tuskegee-alabama-1957-1961

Read: Bernard Taper, Gomillion versus Lightfoot: The Tuskegee Gerrymander Case (1962)

Learn more: Ari Berman, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America (2015)

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