Filed Date: Sept. 2, 1964
Closed Date: 1969
Clearinghouse coding complete
This case is part of the Clearinghouse Special Collection on the events and litigation leading up to and surrounding the famous Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965.
This suit was filed on 9/2/1964. Prior to this suit, Judge Albert Hare of Alabama's state court for Dallas County (where Selma is located), issued an injunction on July 9, 1964 effectively making it unlawful to conduct large public protests or gather to discuss and plan civil rights activism. Specifically, the injunction made the following activities unlawful: (1) assembly of three or more people in a public place for the purposes of discussing "violation of law" or that otherwise impaired use of roads, (2) meetings or activities intended to impede or obstruct "the administration of justice or the orderly function of government," (3) activities intended to impede law enforcement officials from exercising their duties, and (4) conduct otherwise against law enforcement officers. The injunction thus made it difficult for civil rights activists and organizations to continue to conduct their activities in Selma. The injunction was ultimately dissolved on April 16, 1965 in Dallas County v. Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
Tension in Selma over racial discrimination and voting rights continued to rise throughout early 1965, ultimately precipitating the Selma-to-Montgomery protests in March 1965. A major source of the tension was the fact that Sheriff James Clark allowed his "possemen" to handle all race-related matters in Selma. Sheriff Clark was famous for his support of segregation and resort to violence in opposing the civil rights movement. The possemen were several hundred nonprofessional individuals reporting to Sheriff Clark charged with responding to emergency and disaster. These men carried guns and clubs, and sometimes gas canisters. The Sheriff and his possemen beat, arrested, and jailed black individuals on various occasions under dubious justifications. Other times, they simply failed to protect black individuals from the conduct of other civilians.
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice filed this suit on September 2, 1964 pursuant to the Civil Rights Act. The DOJ sued Dallas County, the City of Selma, and their officials, including Sheriff James Clark and Judge Hare. The DOJ argued that the defendants violated the Civil Rights Act by conducting activities intended to threaten, intimidate, and coerce black citizens in order to deprive them of the right to register to vote and to use public accommodations. Activities ranged from mass arrests in connection with voting rights demonstrations to harassment of black individuals attempting to use public spaces like theaters and restaurants. The Civil Rights Act explicitly prohibited such interference with the right to vote and the right to use public accommodations. Accordingly, the DOJ sought to enjoin the defendants from these practices. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.
The defendants moved to dismiss the case. After a hearing, the court (per curiam) granted injunctive relief and denied the motion to dismiss on April 16, 1965 (249 F. Supp. 720). The court held that "[t]he law is clear that there can be no coercion or punishment of any person for the purpose of interfering with the right to nondiscriminatory treatment in a place of public accommodation or in the right to vote in Federal elections."
The court found that in Dallas County where Selma is located, as well as several other Alabama counties, less than 10% of the black voting age population was registered to vote. The court noted that in response, black communities organized and attempted to gain better political representation through mass meetings, demonstrations, and picketing. But the Sheriff's office stymied these efforts by attending activists' meetings and conducting mass arrests. More information about this conduct can be found here and here. Black activists' efforts were further hindered by Judge Hare's injunction that was since dissolved. Moreover, the court found multiple instances of Sheriff Clark and his possemen either preventing black individuals from using public accommodations or failing to protect their right to do so when civilians so interfered. The court held that "the effect of [these] baseless arrests, unjustified prosecutions, unwarranted and illegal injunctions, and any other acts or conduct...upon individuals so subjected who are legally seeking to exercise their rights...is to severely discourage, intimidate, threaten and coerce those citizens" from exercising those rights. The court held this conduct was a direct violation of the Civil Rights Act.
The court attributed this illegal conduct to the Sheriff's office and its agents and Sheriff Clark himself, but it denied holding the state court defendants liable in the interest of comity. The court also did not hold the City of Selma liable, finding that although it had allowed the Sheriff's agents to handle race-related matters in Selma, it did not unlawfully abdicate its responsibilities. The court gave the City the benefit of the doubt that it would refrain from unlawful interference of rights, while reserving jurisdiction over it and these issues.
Although the court did not enjoin the state court defendants, it did deny their judicial immunity defense. The court found that judicial immunity applies only when such officials are dealing with civil suits for damages arising from their official duties. Since the DOJ was seeking preventative relief as to future conduct, the court held that immunity did not apply. Any injunction issued by this court "will only prevent the doing of what there is no right to do."
Ultimately, the court issued an injunction against Sheriff Clark, his deputies, and his possemen "prohibit[ing] coercion, punishment, intimidation or harassment of Negroes or others acting with them in their exercise or attempts to exercise their constitutional rights." The court further enjoined the Sheriff's office from using the possemen in connection with any race-related issues.
The case is long-since closed. We have limited access to case records and information, and we will update this page if more become available.
Virginia Weeks (4/14/2018)
Doar, John (District of Columbia)
Dunbaugh, Frank M. III (District of Columbia)
Jansen, Vernol R. (District of Columbia)
Katzenbach, Nicholas de B. (District of Columbia)
Gayle, T. G. (Alabama)
Last updated Jan. 23, 2024, 3:20 a.m.Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.
State / Territory: Alabama
Filing Date: Sept. 2, 1964
Closing Date: 1969
Case Ongoing: No
Department of Justice
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: No
Class Action Outcome: Not sought
Causes of Action:
Prevailing Party: Plaintiff
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief:
Order Duration: 1965 - None
Content of Injunction: