This is a tale of two men who have never met, but who share a common interest and common roots. Though they both now live in Washington, their beginnings are deep in the soil of Edgefield County, S.C. Each has a special interest in the current fight over the extension of the Voting Rights Act, as interest that can be traced to their personal histories.
Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), 79, is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which is handling the 1982 Voting Rights Act extension bill. He thinks the bill is "terrible," and is a chief proponent of this season's political catch phrase--that the law would impose a "racial quota system" on American political life.
In the small western South Carolina town where Thurmond grew up, the battle over black voting rights was a vicious one. In the last 100 years a black has never won against a white candidate. It was designed as a whites-only political system.
His father, J. William Thurmond, was personal attorney to Ben Tillman, who served as South Carolina's governor and U. S. senator. J. William often took his son Strom, then 9, on his regular weekly trips to see Tillman, an architect of South Carolina's white supremacy system.
While Strom Thurmond was W spending his youth preparing for the stellar political rise that would make him a presidential candidate at 45, a young man who one day would take his right to vote so seriously that he would take his case all the way to the Supreme Court was on the poverty-stricken other side of the tracks in Edgefield, receiving a political education as well, of sorts.
His name was G.C. Gomillion, and his father was a farm laborer who never learned to read or write. Black children were provided free public schooling only three months of the year; in the remaining months they helped in the fields.
"I calculate that I had a total of 26 months of elementary school education," Gomillion said the other day. "Between 1900 and 1915, for every one dollar spent on the education of blacks in and around Edgefield , $30 was spent on whites."
Gomillion worked to save up money for 2 1/2 years and went to a high school attached to Paine College. Working and saving his way through school, he was 28 when he got his bachelor's degree.
Gomillion was chairman of the Division of Social Science at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and president of the Tuskegee Civic Association when he filed suit to challenge the validity of a gerrymander that left all of the white voters within municipal borders and eliminated all but four or five of the black voters. The move was prompted by the presistent efforts of the educated Tuskegee faculty to register as voters.
"We were turned down for technicalities like listing the date of birth before, instead of after, the place of birth," he recalls. "One of my colleagues was hunting around for the board of registrars one day and found them in the probate judge's office, in the big walk-in vault that's used to store all the legal documents, where they were registering some white people. She drove them out and upstairs where they should have been."
Three years after Gomillion filed suit, the U. S. Supreme Court considered his case against Philip M. Lightfoot, mayor of Tuskegee, and in 1960 handed a legal victory to Gomillion that became a major step in the struggle to erase segregated voting in the South, a milestone along the way to passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The discrimination suffered by Gomillion and other Tuskegee blacks is exactly the kind that the Voting Rights Act was designed to eliminate. Gomillion, now living in Washington in retirement, notes the fact that black mayors now run such cities as Washington, Atlanta, New Orleans, Los Angeles--and even Tuskegee.
I asked him if he believes there is still a need for a Voting Rights Act.
"There is definitely a need for this bill to continue," he said. "I don't believe the dominant group is yet ready to grant to blacks the civic opportunities to which they are entitled as citizens. I wish it wouldn't be necessary to enact it in perpetuity, that people could be educated, but I have no qualms about pushing for a bill that extends the act forever."