Case: United States v. Dallas County

2:63-cv-03064 | U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama

Filed Date: June 26, 1963

Closed Date: Oct. 16, 1967

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Case Summary

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 and United States v. McLeod precipitated after a series of events in Selma, AL, briefly described below.The Dallas County Voters League ("League") sought to encourage local black citizens to register to vote. Early in 1963, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sent volunteers to Selma to assist with a voter…

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 and United States v. McLeod precipitated after a series of events in Selma, AL, briefly described below.

The Dallas County Voters League ("League") sought to encourage local black citizens to register to vote. Early in 1963, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) sent volunteers to Selma to assist with a voter registration drive, while the League sponsored voting clinics. In an effort to publicize the clinics, the League organized mass meetings at local black churches starting in May 1963. During these meetings, the League provided information about registering to vote. The League also maintained records of the successful and unsuccessful voter registration applicants. Meanwhile, Dallas County Sheriff James G. Clark - famous for his support of segregation and resort to violence in opposing the civil rights movement - dispatched his officers to these mass meetings, who in turn took notes and recorded license plate numbers of cars parked in the area.

On June 17, 1963, the Dallas County Courthouse held a voter registration drive. Bosie Reese, a volunteer, was at the Courthouse interviewing people waiting in line to register. He claimed that he was there to collect names and addresses of applicants for the League's records. Sheriff Clark claimed that Reese was "molesting" those waiting in line and that he asked him to leave the Courthouse. It is unclear if Reese left, but he was subsequently arrested for disturbing the peace and resisting arrest. At trial, a state judge convicted him and ordered him to pay a fine.

Separately, Sheriff Clark put out a warrant for the arrest of SNCC volunteer Bernard Lafayette. Clark charged Lafayette with vagrancy after claiming to see him begging. Clark did not conduct any further investigation to determine if Lafayette had any visible means of supporting himself. Lafayette was acquitted after showing that the SNCC was paying his living expenses.

In response to these events, the Department of Justice filed this suit on June 26, 1963, challenging the racially discriminatory interference with voter registration in Dallas County. The DOJ sued the County, Sheriff Clark, and the Circuit Solicitor of the Fourth Judicial District of Alabama (Blanchard McLeod) for using coercion and intimidation to interfere with the right to register and vote. The DOJ brought this suit under the Civil Rights Act, seeking injunctive relief. The case was brought in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.

After the complaint was filed but prior to hearings, another allegation of coercion and intimidation was added to the complaint after subsequent events: Clark was patrolling the area around one of these mass meetings when he pulled over Alexander Brown, one of the workers, for having broken headlight. Brown's license had a different last name, and Clark arrested Brown for concealing his identity despite Brown's attempts to explain the discrepancy. Brown was eventually tried and acquitted.

The DOJ argued state officials committed several wrongful acts that justified injunctive relief: (1) the Sheriff and his agents attended mass meetings in Selma, AL on May 14 and June 17, 1963, and (2) the Sheriff conducted a series of arrests between June 17 and July 22, 1963. In its complaint, the DOJ argued that the Sheriff employed these tactics to intimidate and coerce black citizens seeking to register to vote. The DOJ sought an injunction to stop state officials from (1) intimidating, coercing, threatening, or so attempting to interfere with anyone's right to register to vote, (2) striking, arresting, or so threatening to hold in custody or prosecute anyone so as to interfere with the right to register to vote, and (3) proceeding with the prosecution of Reese in state court. The case was initially brought as an ex parte restraining order to stay Reese's prosecution, which the court denied and, on appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed on June 27, 1963.

On March 19, 1964, the court (Judge Daniel Thomas) held that evidence was not sufficient to warrant an injunction (229 F. Supp. 1014). The court found that there had "been much social unrest in Alabama...requiring thoughtful handling, [or] else chaos would have broken out." The court held that Sheriff Clark's presence at the mass meetings was a function of his duty as law enforcement and important to maintaining order.

The court further found that the arrests were proper. Judge Thomas held that Sheriff Clark's arrest of Bosie Reese was in line with the Sheriff's duty to maintain order in the county courthouse because "Reese was in fact molesting the voter registration line in that he was requesting information of persons therein, some of whom refused to divulge such information." The court found that Sheriff Clark's arrest of Lafayette was proper since it was based on probable cause for believing the arrestee to be a vagrant, and as such, the Sheriff had a duty to arrest. Finally, the court found that Sheriff Clark's arrest of Brown did not constitute any sort of violation because the driver was using an alias.

Ultimately, Judge Thomas held that there no constitutional violation and therefore denied the injunction, while also noting the importance of maintaining state sovereignty from the federal courts.

The DOJ appealed, and in opinion by Judge John Minor Wisdom, the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded on October 16, 1967. 385 F.2d 734. On appeal, the DOJ asked for the additional remedy of expungement of all convictions and corresponding financial relief. This opinion consolidates this case with U.S. v. McLeod. Judge Wisdom was part of the "Fifth Circuit Four" - four Fifth Circuit judges known for advancing civil rights through their decisions in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Fifth Circuit found that although the Civil Rights Act specifically prohibits any person from intimidating, threatening, or coercing another so as to interfere with the right to vote freely, Judge Thomas ignored the statutory standard and instead looked to the federal constitution. The Fifth Circuit found that while an act may not be a constitutional violation, it can still clearly be a statutory violation of the Civil Rights Act. Moreover, the court found that "[t]he right to vote encompasses the right to register." Further, the court held that the various acts at issue had to be viewed in the context of the general climate and events in Selma at the time. The court found that the acts all "took place within the context of a pattern of racial discrimination and of an intensive voter registration drive."

Judge Wisdom held that the "arrests, prosecutions and other acts complained of had a coercive effect and were for the purpose of interfering with the right to register and to vote." Indeed, the court noted that "[i]t is difficult to imagine anything short of physical violence which would have a more chilling effect on a voter registration drive than the pattern of baseless arrests and prosecutions revealed in this record." Specifically, Judge Wisdom noted that each of the three arrests was conducted against a person prominently active in the registration drive and was ultimately baseless.

The Fifth Circuit further ordered that the additional injunctive relief related to expungement of convictions and corresponding financial relief be granted. The court found that "[h]arassment in the form of baseless arrests and prosecutions is one of the most effective means of putting a halt to a voter registration drive." Such harassment, the court held, can only be stopped by a federal remedy "as broad as the evil itself." As to the initially requested injunctive relief, the Fifth Circuit remanded for consideration of the scope of appropriate relief in light of related injunctions issued in separate cases and general developments in Dallas County.

We have no record of the case on remand.

The case is now closed. We have limited access to case records and information, and we will update this page if more become available.

Summary Authors

Virginia Weeks (4/8/2018)

People


Judge(s)

Thomas, Daniel Holcombe (Alabama)

Wisdom, John Minor (Louisiana)

Judge(s)

Thomas, Daniel Holcombe (Alabama)

Wisdom, John Minor (Louisiana)

Documents in the Clearinghouse

Document

2:63-cv-03064

Opinion

229 F.Supp. 1014

March 19, 1964

March 19, 1964

Order/Opinion

21475

21477

Opinion

United States v. McLeod

U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

385 F.2d 734

Oct. 16, 1967

Oct. 16, 1967

Order/Opinion

Resources

Docket

Last updated June 1, 2022, 3:11 a.m.

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

Case Details

State / Territory: Alabama

Case Type(s):

Election/Voting Rights

Special Collection(s):

Civil Rights Division Archival Collection

Selma and Early Civil Rights Enforcement

Key Dates

Filing Date: June 26, 1963

Closing Date: Oct. 16, 1967

Case Ongoing: No

Plaintiffs

Plaintiff Description:

Department of Justice

Plaintiff Type(s):

U.S. Dept of Justice plaintiff

Attorney Organizations:

U.S. Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division

Public Interest Lawyer: Yes

Filed Pro Se: No

Class Action Sought: No

Class Action Outcome: Not sought

Defendants

Sheriff James G. Clarke (Dallas), County

Case Details

Causes of Action:

Civil Rights Act of 1957/1960, 52 U.S.C. § 10101 (previously 42 U.S.C. § 1971)

Availably Documents:

Injunctive (or Injunctive-like) Relief

Non-settlement Outcome

Any published opinion

Outcome

Prevailing Party: Plaintiff

Nature of Relief:

Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement

Attorneys fees

Damages

Source of Relief:

Litigation

Order Duration: 1967 - None

Content of Injunction:

Discrimination Prohibition

Issues

General:

Fines/Fees/Bail/Bond

Voting

Voting access

Discrimination-basis:

Race discrimination

Race:

Black

Voting:

Election administration