Civil Rights and Social Activism in the South: Series 1: Parts 1-2
About this Collection
Introduction: Civil Rights and Social Activism in theSouth: Series 1: Part 1: The John L. LeFlore Papers, 1926-1976
John LeFlores career asa community leader and civil rights activist spanned fifty years (1925-1975).He was the most significant figure in the struggle for black equality inMobile, Alabama, throughout southern Alabama and Mississippi, and along theFlorida Gulf Coast. The John L. LeFlore Papers tell important stories about thecivil rights movement in the urban South, document the development and earlywork of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)in Mobile, and provide insight into LeFlores life and aspirations.
A branch of the NAACP wasorganized in Mobile in 1919 but became inactive in the early 1920s. In December1925 John LeFlore began corresponding with the national office aboutreorganizing the branch, and by March 1926 he had mobilized enough people toapply for a new charter. LeFlore served as executive secretary for the branchfrom its inception in 1956. He also served as chairman of the organizationsRegional Conference of Southern Branches from 1936 to 1945, a critical periodin its development, and was vice president of the Alabama Conference from 1945to 1951. Unfortunately, the NAACP correspondence in the LeFlore Papers does notbegin until 1930, but information about the early years of the Mobile branchand Regional Conference may be found in the NAACP Papers at the Library ofCongress (Group 1, Series G, Branch File).
In 1956, when the NAACPwas outlawed in Alabama, LeFlore and others in Mobile shifted their civilrights work to the Non-Partisan Voters League. LeFlore remained with the Leagueeven after the ban was lifted in 1964 and the Mobile branch of the NAACP wasreorganized. Researchers may want to consult the Records of the Non-PartisanVoters League to follow LeFlores civil rights activities as director ofcasework for that organization. These records can be found in Part 2 of themicrofilm publication Records of the Non-Partisan Voters League, 1956-1987.
The Archives have alsotranscribed taped interviews of LeFlore made in 1970 and 1972 by MeltonMcLaurin, then a professor in the University of South Alabama HistoryDepartment. This transcription has been microfilmed, and included with theLeFlore Papers.
Other papers in thecollection document LeFlores prolific work in both public and private life. Heserved in leadership positions in many organizations, ranging from theBrotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to the Mobile Committee for the Support ofPublic Education. The LeFlore Papers contain records relating to hisinvolvement with these organizations, as well as his service on the MobileHousing Board and in the Alabama House of Representatives. He was the firstAfrican American appointed to the Housing Board and, with J. Gary Cooper, wasone of the first African Americans elected to the state legislature from Mobilesince Reconstruction. Personal records include correspondence and materialsrelating to his employment and conflicts with the U.S. Postal Service, hisbusiness interests in the Azalea Homebuilders Association, and his journalisticwork.
Many of the materials inthis collection, particularly some of the NAACP documents, have been damaged asa result of unsatisfactory storage. According to his family, LeFlore fearedthat the NAACP records might be seized and hid them under a church in 1956. Theoriginal order of the materials could not be determined. In addition, manypersonal papers that were found among the Non-Partisan Voters League recordswere transferred to this collection. After careful examination, the documentshave been arranged in nine series:
Mobile Housing Board
Other Committees and Organizations
Editorials and Articles
Personal Correspondence and Records
Azalea Home Builders, Ltd.
Alabama State Legislature
Published and Legal Matters
CHRONOLOGY OF JOHN L. LeFLORES LIFE
Born in Mobile on May 17 to Dock and ClaraLeFlore.
Graduates from the Owen Academy, Mobile.
Marries Teah Beck; employed as a postalworker.
Becomes executive secretary of the new Mobilebranch of the NAACP.
Begins serving as chair of the RegionalConference of Southern Branches-NAACP, a post he holds until 1945.
Beginsworking as a staff correspondent for the Chicago Defender; continuesuntil 1952.
Challenges Alabamas white primary law after the U.S. Supreme Court rulesagainst such laws in Smith v. Allwright.
Begins serving as vice president of the Conference of Alabama Branches-NAACP, apost he retains until 1951.
Joins the Conference of Alabama Branches-NAACP board of directors, serves until1953.
Becomes associate editor of the Mobile Beacon.
The NAACP is outlawed in Alabama until 1964.
Becomes director of casework for the Non-Partisan Voters League.
Begins serving on the Alabama State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commissionon Civil Rights; serves until 1973; resigns from the U.S. Postal Service.
Appointed to the Mobile Housing Board; serves until 1970.
LeFlores home on Chatague Avenue is firebombed.
Appointed to the Alabama Advisory Council for Comprehensive Health Planning;serves until 1974.
Becomes director of the Mobile Committee for the Support of Public Education.
Campaigns for the U.S. Senate
Elected to the Alabama House of Representatives.
Dies of a heart attack on January 30.
SERIES I: NAACP
The Mobile branch recordscover the period from 1930 to 1956. They include correspondence, affidavits,financial and membership records, minutes, miscellaneous notes, and promotionalmaterials. The files of the Alabama Conference of the NAACP containcorrespondence, minutes, and membership records from 1945 to 1953. Materialsrelating to the Regional Conference of Southern Branches includecorrespondence, press releases, and miscellaneous reports from 1936 to 1945.Publications and campaign materials from the national office of the NAACPcomprise the remainder of this series.
Early regional and branchcorrespondence show that LeFlore and the NAACP were primarily concerned withemployment opportunities and public accommodations. However, the focus shiftedto political rights after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1944 that primariespermitting only white voters were unconstitutional. For example, there areaffidavits of twelve registered black voters who were denied the right to votein the 1944 Alabama Democratic primary. Other affidavits filed in 1946 indicatethat registrars were using a variety of tactics to stall black voterregistration.
SERIES II: Mobile Housing Board
Appointed by Mayor JosephN. Langan to the Board of Commissioners of the Mobile Housing Authority in 1966to fill an unexpired term, LeFlore remained on the board until 1970. This was aperiod of considerable activity in low-income housing projects and urbanrenewal in Mobile, both areas of concern to LeFlore. The series containscorrespondence, minutes, newspaper articles, complaints, financial records,U.S. Housing and Urban Development publications, personnel records, andreports.
SERIES III: Other Committees and Organizations
LeFlore participated inmany organizations and served on various state committees. In addition to civilrights, these groups represent public work in areas such as prison reform,health and family planning, veterans rights, labor unions, public education,and general charity. In addition, he was on the editorial staff of the MobileBeacon and was a radio commentator for a public service program, TodaysWorld, for many years.
This series includesextensive correspondence, minutes, grant applications, and financial recordsfor the Committee for the Support of Public Education, a group organized byLeFlore and Father Albert Foley of Spring Hill College in 1973. This committeereceived federal funds to mount an intensive ad campaign against racialdisturbances in the public schools. Between 1956 and 1959 LeFlore was brieflyassociated with several civic organizations through which he attempted to carryon his civil rights activities after the NAACP was outlawed in Alabama.
Researchers will findrelated material in LeFlores personal correspondence (Series V). From 1959 to1975 he served as director of casework for the Non-Partisan Voters League (seePart 2, Records of the Non-Partisan Voters League, 1956-1987).
SERIES IV: Editorials and Articles
LeFlore was a newscorrespondent for the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier,and the Associated Negro Press and covered many of the civil rights violationsthat occurred in the South. The Defender awarded LeFlore a citation forcovering the lynching of four black people in Monroe, Georgia, in 1946. Theeditorials and articles in this series date from 1940 to 1952.
LeFlore later becameassociate editor of the Mobile Beacon and wrote many editorials andfeatures for his weekly newspaper. These may be found in the Records of theNon-Partisan Voters League.
SERIES V: Personal Correspondence and Records
LeFlore sent and receiveda great deal of correspondence over the years. Many of these letters(1940-1976) relate to civil rights issues, but are personal rather thanofficial correspondence. There are also numerous letters of appreciation fromLeFlore to those who expressed concern over the firebombing of his home in1967.
This series includes athesis concerning institutional racial discrimination in Mobile written in 1975by Joe Ramon Whatley Jr., a student at Harvard, and dedicated to John LeFlore.The series also contains financial records (not microfilmed), legal documents,LeFlores postal employee records, correspondence relating to his employment asa sales representative during the 1930s, and materials relating to hisunsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1972. The biographical file shouldprove helpful for the researcher interested in the chronology of LeFloresactivities and accomplishments. LeFlores financial documents (contained infolders 77 through 79) were not microfilmed due to privacy considerations.
SERIES VI: Azalea Home Builders, Ltd.
A partner in the AzaleaHome Builders, Ltd., from 1973 to 1975, LeFlore retained papers from thisbusiness venture. The group acquired properties outside urban renewal areas torehabilitate, sell, or lease. The series includes correspondence, minutes of thepartners meetings, and financial reports. Appraisals, floor plans, contracts,and bills for building supplies have not been microfilmed.
SERIES VII: Alabama State Legislature
LeFlore was elected tothe Alabama House of Representatives in 1975, about a year before his death.The records include news clippings, campaign materials, correspondence(1974-1975), and bills.
SERIES VIII: Published and Legal Materials
This series containspublications from various organizations concerned with civil rights, blackveterans, politicians, congressional records, health, the Interstate CommerceCommission, the Southern Negro Youth Congress, and the United Seamans Service.Only the title page of some of these publications has been microfilmed. Thereare also miscellaneous news clippings and articles.
John LeFlore is not namedin any of the legal materials in the series, and there is no correspondence toindicate the nature of his connection with them. They include a guardianshipcase, a contested will, a university faculty contract, bylaws for a healthservice, and postal employee records. None of these materials have beenmicrofilmed due to privacy considerations.
SERIES IX: Photographs
This series includesphotographs of the victims of the 1946 lynchings in Monroe, Georgia, examplesof police brutality, and union strikes. There are also photographs of blackfiremen, policemen, and other groups, and of LeFlore himself.
INTRODUCTION TO THE COLLECTION
Civil Rights and Social Activism on the Gulf Coast: JohnLeFlore and the Non-Partisan Voters League
The papers of John L.LeFlore and the records of the Non-Partisan Voters League of Mobile, Alabama,comprise an extensive collection of civil rights material. Taken together,these records provide insight into the social activism of lifelong civil rightsorganizer John LeFlore.
LeFlore was born inMobile in 1903. His early aspiration to go to law school was dashed by hisfamilys economic status and the death of his father. LeFlore was one of thefew blacks in Alabama to pass the civil service examination and in 1922 hebecame a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. LeFlores status as afederal employee protected him from much of the employment discriminationrampant during the 1920s, but his position at the Mobile Post Office could notshield him from the indignities of segregation. Blacks were as harshlysegregated in Mobile as in other areas of the South. In 1925, LeFlore wasarrested after an altercation with a white man on a city bus. Even though thewhite man caused the trouble, local police accosted LeFlore. The event wouldhave a lasting effect on LeFlore. Shortly after the incident, he wrote to NAACPofficials in New York about the local branch, which had been inactive forseveral years. The national office required LeFlore to find fifty committedcitizens to revive the organization. LeFlores organizing efforts weresuccessful and in 1926 the Mobile NAACP was reorganized and LeFlore was electedexecutive secretary.
Over the next thirtyyears, LeFlore worked tirelessly through the NAACP legal framework to improvethe condition of blacks in Mobile and along the Gulf Coast. Having lived allhis life in Mobile, LeFlore was keenly aware of the local problems confrontingblacks. He brought this perspective into his new position as executivesecretary and pressed the NAACP national office for additional resources. Hisinitial efforts in Mobile were successful, and membership increased. In 1928the branch began a twenty-year fight for better railroad accommodations forblacks. LeFlores most powerful weapon against Jim Crow was his typewriter. TheLeFlore papers contain thousands of letters he wrote stressing the need forchange. LeFlore also wrote editorials for the Chicago Defender and theMobile Beacon, a local black newspaper.
The early surge ofactivism in Mobile was hampered by the Great Depression. Local blacks were lesslikely to participate and pay membership dues in a period of economic crisis.Despite the difficulties, LeFlores actions kept the Mobile NAACP active.
His efforts soon extendedbeyond Mobile. The national office used LeFlores skills as an organizer tocreate new branches and shore up faltering ones throughout the Gulf Coast. NewYorks reliance on LeFlore attests to his effectiveness as a civil rightsleader. In less than a decade, he became an important member of the NAACP inthe Gulf South. The young secretary also fostered ties with the National UrbanLeague and the National Negro Congress.
Support for localactivism increased in response to the changes wrought by World War II. Mobileexperienced exponential population growth with the increase in shipbuildingduring the war. The population of the port city quickly rose from 78,000 to125,000, amplifying existing class and racial tensions. At its height, MobilesAlabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company (ADDSCO) employed thirty thousand menand women. The rapid increase in population created an immediate housingshortage, and white workers quickly occupied any new housing units. Blacks seekingwork in Mobile found that the best war-related jobs were reserved for whites.LeFlore and the Mobile NAACP advocated equal employment and housing for blackworkers. LeFlore lobbied local managers of city shipyards and sent letters andreports on the workers behalf to the War Manpower Commission, the U.S.Maritime Commission, and the Fair Employment Practices Committee.
The increased blackpopulation, combined with the housing shortage and urban crowding, created atense atmosphere in Mobile during the 1940s. In 1942 a black soldier was shotand killed by a driver while leaving a city bus. The Mobile NAACP issued sevendemands to the bus company, including the disarming of drivers and the hiringof black employees, and threatened a boycott if the driver was not fired. Thebus company avoided the boycott and cooled tensions by agreeing to disarm itsdrivers. The company refused, however, to fire the driver.
Despite this partialvictory over the bus company, the Mobile NAACP would confront larger problemsthe following year. Tensions flared again in 1943 when a race riot erupted atADDSCO. In May the company promoted twelve black workers to the position ofwelder. The following day, rumors of blacks working near white female workersresulted in a full-scale riot and the temporary removal of all black workers.White workers were unwilling to allow this apparent violation of one of JimCrows oldest social taboos and lost any sense of accommodation they might haveheld toward the black workers. Incredibly, no one was killed during the riot,but black workers refused to return until their safety could be guaranteed.LeFlore took depositions from injured workers and initiated his owninvestigation of the incident. Tensions cooled over several weeks, and the blackemployees returned to work.
When war production inMobile slowed after 1944, LeFlore and the Mobile NAACP returned to the issuesthat had precipitated their reorganization twenty years earlier. In response tothe Supreme Courts 1944 Smith v. Allwright decision ending all-whiteprimary elections in Texas, LeFlore and several NAACP members attempted to votein the Alabama Democratic primary in May. After they were denied access topolling places, LeFlore prepared affidavits for the Justice Department. Theseefforts were impeded by the Boswell Amendment, an attempt by the AlabamaLegislature to circumvent the Smith decision and eliminate black votingby giving county registrars complete discretion in determining thequalifications of potential voters. The Boswell Amendment was ultimately struckdown after a prolonged and heated legal battle. In 1946 Mobile blacks voted inlarge numbers for the first time since Reconstruction.
By 1949 Mobile had begunto emerge from the wartime chaos. But the new city differed greatly from OldMobile. It was much more crowded and contained a larger proportion of whiteProtestants, newly arrived from the states interior. The Mobile NAACP suffereda severe loss in membership that year due in part to increased harassment by agrowing Ku Klux Klan chapter in the area. In the years ahead, the Mobile NAACPwould be challenged by a rising statewide opposition to civil rights.
The Supreme Courts 1954 Brownv. Board of Education of Topeka decision ushered in a new era of black activismand white resistance. Since the summer of 1950, attorneys for the NAACP hadbeen attacking school segregation directly, and when the Supreme Courtoverturned the separate but equal doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson(1896), die-hard segregationists mobilized for action. In June 1956 AlabamaAttorney General John Patterson secured an injunction against the NAACP forfailing to register as an out-of-state corporation. The lawsuit effectivelydestroyed the ability of the NAACP to operate legally in Alabama. The rulingstood until 1964, prompting LeFlore and his allies to continue their struggleunder the banner of a new organization.
In response toPattersons injunction, Mobile NAACP members reorganized as the independentNon-Partisan Voters League (NPVL). The NPVL had existed prior to the 1956injunction, but its exact date of origin is unknown. Although LeFlore wasinstrumental in shifting the civil rights activity of the Mobile NAACP to theNPVL, he never served as its titular head. Instead the former NAACP executivesecretary became the director of casework in 1959. Over the next decade, theNPVL would accomplish many of the original goals of LeFlore and the MobileNAACP and make far greater strides in school integration, voter registration,and social activism than its predecessor.
The number of blackvoters registered in Mobile County increased steadily after 1946. By 1953 blackvoters were sufficiently numerous to tip the balance in closely contestedmunicipal elections. The Non-Partisan Voters League was aware of this shift anddevised techniques to galvanize an African American bloc vote behind candidatessympathetic to its views. Shortly before city elections, the NPVL printed anddistributed sample ballots that indicated which candidates supported civilrights. These pink sheets, named after their distinctly colored paper,carried the official weight of the organization. Early on, racially moderatewhite candidates openly sought the endorsement of the NPVL. But as black votingpower increased, white apprehension and reaction made the endorsement of thepink sheet less desirable. The political career of Joseph Langan illustratesthis point. Langan, a Big Jim Folsom liberal and early ally of LeFlore, waselected in 1953 with a pink sheet campaign when he first sought a Mobile citycommissioners seat. By 1961 Langans well-known stance on civil rights and hisclose identification with LeFlore made the pink sheet endorsement a liabilityto his reelection.
The Non-Partisan VotersLeague made other strides in Mobile civil rights in its early years. ThroughLeFlores influence, the NPVL brought hundreds of cases of job discriminationand injustice to light, resulting in the integration of the Mobile police andfire departments. The league also continued a long battle LeFlore had begunagainst discrimination in the U.S. Postal Service. Continuing the NAACPsscrutiny against railroads, the NPVL brought a dozen complaints ofdiscrimination to the Interstate Commerce Commission. Access to public accommodationsin Mobile was greatly expanded after a series of desegregation tests broughtscrutiny upon recalcitrant merchants who had yet to comply with the CivilRights Act of 1964.
The greatest influence ofthe Non-Partisan Voters League can be seen in several important court cases.The first was the 1958 case of Willie Seals, a black man convicted of rape byan all-white jury and sentenced to death. The league challenged the legality ofthe verdict on the basis of exclusion of blacks from jury rolls. By 1963 theconviction had been overturned on appeal. Seals was released from prison in1970.
The Non-Partisan VotersLeagues longest legal battle was the Birdie Mae Davis, et al. v. Board ofSchool Commissioners of Mobile County, et al. school desegregation suitfiled in federal court in 1963. As a result of the litigation, three blackchildren were admitted to Murphy High School in Mobile the following year.White parents whisked their children into private or parochial schools, and theMobile school board engaged in a prolonged legal battle. The case was notsettled until 1999, by which time Davis had achieved the dubiousdistinction of being the longest school desegregation suit in American history.But Mobile Countys integration was not the NPVLs only foray into schooldesegregation. The NPVL also fostered the admission of Vivian Malone to theUniversity of Alabama in 1963. Malone was a native Mobilian whom LeFlorerecruited for the task of integrating the university. There is some evidencethat the league even bought Malones luggage for her trip to Tuscaloosa.
The Non-Partisan VotersLeague also challenged Mobiles form of government as inherently unfair toblacks. In 1975 league lawyers filed suit in federal court charging that thecitys at-large elections weakened black representation. The case, Bolden v.City of Mobile, ultimately resulted in the election of three black citycommissioners in 1985. The second phase of the Bolden case, whichdiscussed a new form of government more inclusive to blacks, began only twomonths after a nineteen-year-old black youth named Michael Donald was murderedby Klansmen and his body hung from a tree in downtown Mobile. By 1983 the Boldencase was completed and the citys electorate approved a new form of governmentfor the 1985 election. The inclusion of a supermajority requirement of fivevotes on the eight-person commission necessitated that at least one blackcommissioner support council business. In 2004 Sam Jones was elected as thefirst black mayor of Mobile.
In spite of itsaccomplishments, the Non-Partisan Voters League eventually encounteredopposition from within the black community. By the late 1960s, younger, moremilitant activists in groups such as Mobiles Neighborhood Organized Workers(NOW) rejected the tactics of the NPVL and LeFlore. NOW called for an end tothe leagues pink sheet campaigns, calling them ineffective and accusingLeFlore of selling endorsements to the highest bidder. The groups influencegrew throughout 1968. Shocked and outraged by the assassination of Dr. MartinLuther King Jr., NOW organized a march through Mobile in solidarity with thefallen civil rights leader. In May the group picketed the American Junior MissPageant at Mobiles municipal auditorium because the facility refused to hireblacks except for menial positions. In June the leadership of NOW called for aboycott of Mobiles downtown businesses because of hiring discrimination.Throughout these demonstrations, LeFlore sought compromise with the members ofNOW, and he was arrested with NOW protestors outside the municipal auditorium.But when NOW called for a boycott of the 1969 city elections, LeFlore pleadedwith the members not to relinquish the hard-won franchise so easily. In spiteof LeFlores efforts, the 1969 election saw extremely low voter turnout inblack wards. The percentage was low enough to ensure the defeat of longtimecivil rights supporter Joseph Langan. Langans previous support of LeFlore andcivil rights proved to be his undoing in the 1969 election, when hisconservative opponent used his liberal record to unseat him.
The emergence of NOW andthe defeat of Langan represented a decline in the political significance of theNon-Partisan Voters League. With the majority of its legal cases in the handsof attorneys, the league began a slow retreat from prominence. By 1970 LeFlorehad spent almost fifty years as the leading civil rights activist in Mobile.His political ally, Joseph Langan, had appointed him to the Mobile HousingBoard in 1966 after LeFlore left the Postal Service. LeFlore was a longtimeadvocate for fair housing practices and served on the board until 1970. In 1972LeFlore launched an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate, and in 1975 hewon election to the Alabama House of Representatives from the Mobile district.After serving only a few months in the legislature he suffered a heart attackand died on January 30, 1976. His funeral was attended by blacks and whites,politicians and citizens, who recognized the contribution LeFlore had made toracial equality along the Gulf Coast. The NPVL remained active in the decadefollowing LeFlores death, successfully concluding the Birdie Mae Davisand Bolden cases.
Before his death, LeFloredonated many of his personal papers to Melton McLaurin, a professor of historyat the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Twenty years later, the tworemaining original members of the Non-Partisan Voters League, O.B. Purifoy andRaymond Scott, donated the groups records to the University of South Alabama Archives,where LeFlores personal papers are located. The collection assembled here bythe University of South Alabama Archives and Primary Source Media (PSM), animprint of Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, represents a significantcontribution to civil rights scholarship. As civil rights historiography movesdeeper into its second phase, the study of community organizations like theNPVL becomes more important. Even before the recognition of the leaguesimportance, LeFlore was known as a civil rights pioneer in south Alabama. Thepublication of his papers and the NPVL records will provide researchers inpolitical science, history, law, and other fields an opportunity to examine theprimary documents of an important twentieth-century civil rights organizationin Alabama. These papers represent the workings of an independent civil rightsorganization and invite new investigations into black activism at the locallevel. Further, the LeFlore-NPVL papers shed light on the civil rights strugglein Mobile itself, a city more politically responsive to blacks during the 1950sthan Montgomery or Birmingham. Students of urban politics and historians ofschool desegregation will find much new material in these papers. TheLeFlore-NPVL papers are worthy additions to the PSM series on social activismand civil rights in the twentieth-century American South.
Clarence L. Mohr
Professor of History
University of South Alabama
Scotty E. Kirkland
University of South Alabama
Organization of Materials on Microfilm
The original microfilmingof the manuscript collection took place at the University of South Alabama. PSMduplicated the master negative microfilm, preserving the original arrangementof items.
This project would nothave been possible without assistance from many individuals. Primary SourceMedia (PSM), an imprint of Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, wishes to thankDr. Michael Thomason, former director of the University of South AlabamaArchives in Mobile, Alabama, where the original collection resides, for hisinvaluable support and advice throughout the project. PSM extends gratitude toarchivist Carol Ellis, for her dedication to the smooth running of the project,her responsiveness to myriad questions, and her reference support. PSM alsowishes to thank Dr. Clarence Mohr and Scotty Kirkland of the University ofSouth Alabama for writing an exhaustive introduction to the collection.